Salty Matters

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Brine evolution and origins of potash - primary or secondary. Ancient potash ores: Part 3 of 3

John Warren - Monday, December 31, 2018

Introduction

In the previous two articles in this series on potash exploitation, we looked at the production of either MOP or SOP from anthropogenic brine pans in modern saline lake settings. Crystals of interest formed in solar evaporation pans and came out of solution as: 1) Rafts at the air-brine interface, 2) Bottom nucleates or, 3) Syndepositional cements precipitated within a few centimetres of the depositional surface. In most cases, periods of more intense precipitation tended to occur during times of brine cooling, either diurnally or seasonally (sylvite, carnallite and halite are prograde salts). All anthropogenic saline pan deposits examples can be considered as primary precipitates with chemistries tied to surface or very nearsurface brine chemistry.

In contrast, this article discusses ancient potash deposits where the chemistries and ore textures are responding to ongoing alteration processes in the diagenetic realm. Unlike the modern brine pans where brines chemistries and harvested mineralogies are controllable, at least in part, these ancient deposits show ore purities and distributions related to ongoing natural-process overprints.



Table 1 lists some modern and ancient potash deposits and prospects by dividing them into Neogene and Pre-Neogene deposits (listing is extracted and compiled from SaltWork® database Version 1.7). The Neogene deposits are associated with a time of MgSO4-enriched seawaters while a majority of the Pre-Neogene deposits straddle times of MgSO4 enrichment and depletion in the ocean waters.

Incongruent dissolution in burial

Many primary evaporite salts dissolve congruently in the diagenetic realm; i.e., the composition of the solid and the dissolved solute stoichiometrically match, and the dissolving salt goes entirely into solution (Figure 1a). This situation describes the typical subsurface dissolution of anhydrous evaporite salts such as halite or sylvite. However, some evaporite salts, typically hydrated salts, such as gypsum or carnallite, dissolve incongruently in the diagenetic realm, whereby the composition of the solute in solution does not match that of the solid (Figure 1b). This solubilisation or mineralogical alteration is defined by the transformation of the "primary solid" into a secondary solid phase, typically an anhydrous salt, and the loss of water formerly held in the lattice structure. The resulting solution generally carries ions away in solution.


More than a century ago, van't Hoff (1912) suggested that much subsurface sylvite is the result of incongruent solution of carnallite yielding sylvite and a Mg-rich solution. According to Braitsch (1971, p. 120), the incongruent alteration (dissolution) of carnallite is perhaps the most crucial process in the alteration of subsurface potash salts and the formation of diagenetic (secondary) sylvite.

Widespread burial-driven incongruent evaporite reactions in the diagenetic realm include the burial transition of gypsum to anhydrite (reaction 1)

CaSO4.2H2O --> CaSO4 + 2 H2O ... (1)

and the in-situ conversion of carnallite to sylvite via the loss of magnesium chloride in solution (reaction 2)

KMgCl3.6H2O --> KCl + Mg++ + 2Cl- + 6H2O ...(2)

Typically, a new solid mineral remains, and the related complex solubility equilibrium creates a saline pore water that may, in turn, drive further alteration or dissolution as it leaves the reaction site (Warren, Chapters 2 and 8). Specifically for ancient potash, reaction 2 generates magnesium and chloride in solution and has been used to explain why diagenetic bischofite and dolomite can be found in proximity to newly formed subsurface sylvite. Bischofite is a highly soluble salt and so is metastable in many subsurface settings where incongruent dissolution is deemed to have occurred, including bischofite thermal pool deposits in the Dallol sump in the Danakhil of Ethiopia (Salty Matters, May 1, 2015). In many hydrologically active systems, solid-state bischofite is flushed by ongoing brine crossflow and so help drive the formation of various burial dolomites. Only at high concentrations of MgCl2 can carnallite dissolve without decomposition.

Laboratory determinations

In the lab, the decomposition of carnallite in an undersaturated aqueous solution is a well-documented example of incongruent dissolution (Emons and Voigt, 1981; Xia et al., 1993; Hong et al., 1994; Liu et al., 2007; Cheng et al., 2015, 2016). When undersaturated water comes into contact with carnallite, the rhombic carnallite crystals dissolve and, because of the common ion effect, small cubic KCl crystals form in the vicinity of the dissolving carnallite. As time passes, the KCl crystals grow into larger sparry subhedral forms and the carnallite disappears.

Carnallite’s crystal structure is built of Mg(H2O)6 octahedra, with the K+ ions are situated in the holes of chloride ion packing meshworks, with a structural configuration similar to perovskite lattice types (Voigt, 2015). Potassium in the carnallite lattice can be substituted by other large single-valence ions like NH4+, Rb+, Cs+ or Li(H2O)+, (H3O)+ and Cl- by Br- and I-. These substitutions change the lattice symmetry from orthorhombic in the original carnallite to monoclinic.

When interpreting the genesis of ancient potash deposits and solutions, the elemental segregation in the lattice means trace element contents of bromide, rubidium and caesium in primary carnallite versus sylvite daughter crystals from incongruent dissolution can provide valuable information. For example, in a study by Wardlaw, (1968), a trace element model was developed for sylvite derived from carnallite that gave for Br and Rb concentration ranges of 0.10–0.90 mg/g and 0.01–0.18 mg/g, respectively. In a later study of sylvite derived by fresh-water leaching of magnesium chloride under isothermal conditions at 25 °C. Cheng et al. (2016), defined a model whereby primary sylvites precipitated from MgSO4-deficient sea water, gave Br and Rb concentration ranges of 2.89–3.54 mg/g and 0.017–0.02 mg/g, respectively (no evaporation occurred at saturation with KCl). In general, they concluded sylvite derived incongruently from carnallite would contain less Br and more Rb than primary sylvite (Figure 2; Cheng et al., 2016).


Subsurface examples

The burial-driven mechanism widely cited to explain the incongruent formation of sylvite from carnallite is illustrated in Figure 3 (Koehler et al., 1990). Carnallite precipitating from evaporating seawater at time 1 forms from a solution at 30°C and atmospheric (1 bar) pressure, and so plots as point A, which lies within the carnallite stability field (that is, it sits above the dashed light brown line). With subsequent burial, the pressure increases so that the line defining carnallite-sylvite boundary (solid dark brown line) moves to higher values of K. By time 2, when the pressure is at 1 Kbar (corresponds to a lithostatic load equivalent to 2-3 km depth), the buried carnallite is thermodynamically unstable and so is converting to sylvite + solution (as the plot field now lies in the sylvite + solution field (Figure 3). If equilibrium is maintained the carnallite reacts incongruently to form further sylvite and MgCl2-solution. Thus, provided the temperature does not rise substantially, increasing pressure as a result of burial will favour the breakdown of carnallite to sylvite. However, as burial proceeds, the temperature may become high enough to favour once again the formation of carnallite from sylvite + solution (that is the solution plot point from A moves toward the right-hand side of the figure and back into the carnallite stability field).


Sylvite, interpreted to have formed from incongruent dissolution of primary carnallite, is reported from the Late Permian Zechstein Formation of Germany (Borchert and Muir, 1964), Late Permian Salado Formation of New Mexico (Adams, 1970), Early Mississippian Windsor Group of Nova Scotia (Evans, 1970), Early Cretaceous Muribeca Formation of Brazil and its equivalents in the Gabon Basin, West Africa (Wardlaw, 1972a, b; Wardlaw and Nicholls, 1972; Szatmari et al., 1979; de Ruiter, 1979), Late Cretaceous of the Maha Sarakham Formation, Khorat Plateau, Thailand and Laos (Hite and Japakasetr, 1979), Pleistocene Houston Formation, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia (Holwerda and Hutchinson, 1968), and Middle Devonian Prairie Formation of western Canada (Schwerdtner, 1964; Wardlaw, 1968) (See Table 1).

This well-documented literature base supports a long-held notion that there is a problem with sylvite as a primary (first precipitate) marine bittern salt, especially if the mother seawater had ionic proportions similar to those present in modern seawater (see Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990 for an excellent, if 30-year-old, review). We know from numerous evaporation experiments, that sylvite does not crystallise during the evaporation of modern seawater at 25°C, except under metastable equilibrium conditions (Braitsch, 1971; Valyashko, 1972; Hardie, 1984). The sequence of bitterns crystallising from modern seawater bitterns was illustrated in the previous Salty Matters article in this series (see Figure 1 in October 31 2018).

Across the literature documenting sylvite-carnallite associations in ancient evaporites, the dilemma of primary versus secondary sylvite is generally solved in one of three ways. Historically, many workers interpreted widespread sylvite as a diagenetic mineral formed by the incongruent dissolution of carnallite (Explanation 1). Then there is the interpretation that some sylvite beds, perhaps associated with tachyhydrite, were precipitated in the evaporite bittern part of a basin hydrology that was fed by CaCl2-rich basinal hydrothermal waters (Explanation 2: see Hardie, 1990 for a good discussion    of this mechanism). Then there is the third, and increasingly popular explanation of primary or syndepositional sylvite at particular times in the chemical evolution of the world oceans (MgSO4-depleted oceans).


Changes in the relative proportions of magnesium, sulphur and calcium in the world’s oceans are well supported by brine inclusion chemistry of co-associated chevron halite (Figure 4). Clearly, there are vast swathes of times in the earth’s past when the chemistry of seawater changed so that MgSO4 levels were lower than today and it was possible that sylvite was a primary marine bittern precipitate (see Lowenstein et al., 2014 for an excellent summary).

In my opinion, there is good evidence that all three explanations are valid within their relevant geological contexts but, if used exclusively to explain the presence of ancient sylvite, the argument becomes somewhat dogmatic. I would say that that, owing to its high solubility, the various textures and mineralogical associations of carnallite/sylvite and sulphate bitterns found in ancient potash ore beds reflect various and evolving origins. Ambient textures and mineralogies are dependent on how many times and how pervasively in a potash sequence’s geological burial history an evolving and reactive pore brine chemistry came into contact with parts or all of the extent of highly reactive potash beds (Warren, 2000; 2010; 2016).

In my experience, very few ancient examples of economic potash show layered textures indicating primary precipitation on a brine lake floor, instead, most ancient sylvite ores show evidence of at least one episode of alteration. That is, various forms and textures in potash may dissolve, recrystallise and backreact with each other from the time a potash salt is first precipitated until it is extracted. The observed textural and mineralogical evolution of a potash ore association depends on how open was the hydrology of the potash system at various stages during its burial evolution. The alteration can occur syndepositionally, in brine reflux, or later during flushing by compactional or thermobaric subsurface waters or during re-equilibration tied to uplift and telogenesis. Tectonism (extensional and compactional) during the various stages of a basin’s burial evolution acts as a bellows driving fluid flow within a basin, so forcing and speeding up the focused circulation of potash-altering waters.

 

A similar, but somewhat less intense, textural evolution tied to incongruent alteration is seen in the burial history of other variably hydrated evaporite salts. For example, CaSO4 can flip-flop from gypsum to anhydrite and back again depending on temperature, pore fluid salinity and the state of uplift/burial. Likewise, with the more complicated double salt polyhalite, there are mineralogical changes related to whether it formed in a MgSO4 enriched or depleted world ocean and the associated chemistry of the syndepositional reflux brines across extensive evaporite platforms (for a more detailed discussion of polyhalite see Salty Matters, July 31, 2018). Kainite-kieserite-carnallite also show evidence of ongoing incongruent interactions. This means that, as in gypsum/anhydrite/polyhalite or kain ite/kieserite sequences, there will be primary and secondary forms of both carnallite and sylvite that can alternate during deposition, during burial and any deep meteoric flushing and then again with uplift. In Quaternary brine factories these same incongruent chemical relationships are what facilitate the production of MOP (sylvite) from a carnallitite feed or SOP from kainite/kieserite/schoenite feed (see articles 1 and 2 in this series).

 

To document the three end-members of ancient sylvite-carnallite decomposition/precipitation we will look at three examples; 1) Oligocene potash in the Mulhouse Basin where primary sylvite textures are commonplace, 2) Devonian potash ores in western Canada, where multiple secondary stages of alteration are seen, and 3) Igneous-dyke associated sylvite in east Germany where thermally-driven volatisation (incongruent melting) forms sylvite from dehydrated carnallite.


Oligocene Potash, Mulhouse Basin France

Moving backwards into deep time, this 34 Ma deposit contains some of the first indications of well preserved primary marine-fed sylvinite (MOP) textures exemplified by laterally-continuous mm-scale alternations of potash and halite layers and lamina (Figure 5a-c). Interestingly, all solid-state potash deposits laid down in the post-Oligocene period contain increased proportions of MgSO4 salts, making them much more difficult to economically mine and process (see Table 1 and Salty Matters, May 12, 2015)

From 1904 until 2002, potash was conventionally mined in France from the Mulhouse Basin (near Alsace, France). With an area of 400 km2, the Mulhouse Basin is the southernmost of a number of Lower Oligocene evaporite basins that occupied the upper Rhine Graben, which at that time was a narrow adiabatic-arid rift valley (Figure 6a). The graben was a consequence of the collision between European and African plates during the Paleogene. It is part of a larger intracontinental rift system across Western Europe that extended from the North Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, stretching some 300 km from Frankfurt (Germany) in the north, to Basel (Switzerland) in the south, with an average width of 35 km (Cendon et al., 2008). The southern extent of the graben is limited by a system of faults that place Hercynian massifs and Triassic materials into contact with the Paleogene filling. Across the north, a complex system of structures (including salt diapirs) put the basin edges in contact with Triassic, Jurassic and Permian materials. In the region of the evaporite basins, the Paleogene fill of the graben lies directly on the Jurassic basement. The sedimentary filling of this rift sequence is asymmetrical with the deeper parts located at the southwestern and northeastern sides of the Graben (Rouchy, 1997).


Palaeogeographical reconstructions place the potential marine seaway seepage feed to the north or perhaps also southeast of the Mulhouse Basin, while marginal continental conglomerates tend to preclude any contemporaneous hydrographic connection with Oligocene ocean water (Blanc-Valleron, 1991; Hinsken et al., 2007; Cendon et al., 2008). At the time of its hydrographic isolation, some 34 Ma, the basin was located 40° north of the equator. Total fill of Oligocene lacustrine/marine-fed sediments in the graben is some 1,700m thick. The saline stage is dominated by anhydrite, halite and mudstone. The main saline sequence is underlain by non-evaporitic Eocene continental mudstones, with lacustrine fossils and local anhydrite beds. Evaporite bed continuity in the northern part of the basin is disturbed by (Permian-salt cored) diapiric and or erosional/fault movement. Consequently, these northern basins are not considered suitable for conventional potash mining (Figure 6a).

The Paleogene fill of the basin is divided into 6 units; a pre-evaporitic series, Lower Salt Group (LSG), Middle Salt Group (MSG), an Upper Salt Group (USG - with potash), Grey Marls Fm., and the Niederroedern Fm (Figure 7; Cendon et al., 2008). The LSG and lower section of the MSG are interpreted as lacustrine in origin, based on the limited palaeontologic and geochemical data. However, based on the presence of Cenozoic marine nannoplankton, shallow water benthic foraminifera, and well-diversified dinocyst assemblages in the fossiliferous zone below Salt IV, Blanc-Valleron (1991) favours a marine influence near the top of the MSG, while recognising the ambiguity of marine proportions with brackish faunas. Many marine-seepage fed brine systems have salinities that allow halotolerant species to flourish in marine-fed basins with no ongoing marine hydrographic connection (Warren, 2011). According to Blanc-Valleron and Schuler (1997), the region experienced a Mediterranean climate with long dry seasons during Salt IV member deposition.


In detail, the Salt IV member is made up of some 210 m of evaporitic sequence, with two relatively thin potash levels (Ci and Cs). The stratigraphy associated with this potash zone is, from base to top (Figure 7):

S2 Unit: 11.5 m thick with distinct layers of organic-rich marls, often dolomitic, with dispersed anhydrite layers.

S1 Unit: 19 m thick, evenly-bedded and made up of alternating metre-scale milky (inclusion-rich) halite layers, with much thinner marls and anhydrite layers. Marls show a sub-millimetric lamination formed by micritic carbonate laminae alternating with clay, quartz, and organic matter-rich laminae. Hofmann et al. (1993a, b) interpreted these couplets as reflecting seasonal variations. Anhydrite occasionally displays remnant swallowtail ghost textures, which suggest that at least part of the anhydrite first precipitated as subaqueous gypsum. Halite shows an abundance of growth-aligned primary chevron textures, along with fluid-inclusion banding suggesting halite was subaqueous and deposited beneath shallow brine sheets (Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990).

S Unit: Is 3.7 m thick and consists of thin marl layers and anhydrite, similar to the S2 Unit, with a few thin millimetric layers of halite.

Mi Unit: With a thickness of 6 m, it is mostly halite with similar characteristics to the S1 Unit. Sylvite was detected in one sample, but its presence is probably related to the evolution of interstitial brines (Cendon et al., 2008).

Ci Unit (“Couche inférieure”): Is formed by 4 m of alternating marls/anhydrite, halite, and sylvite beds (Figure 7).

The Ti unit consists of alternating beds of halite, marl and anhydrite. The top of the interval is the T unit, which is similar to the S unit and consists of alternating beds of marl and anhydrite. Above this is the Ms or upper Marl, near identical to the lower marl Mi. The Mi is overlain by the upper potash bed (Cs), a thinner, but texturally equivalent, bed compared to the sylvinitic Ci unit.

Thus, the Oligocene halite section includes two thin, but mined, potash zones: the Couche inferieure (Ci; 3.9m thick), and Couche superieure (Cs; 1.6m thick), both occur within Salt IV of the Upper Salt group (Figures 5, 7).

Both potash beds are made up of stacked, thin, parallel-sided cm-dm-thick beds (averaging 8 cm thickness), which are in turn constructed of couplets composed of grey-coloured halite overlain by red-coloured sylvite (Figure 5b). Each couplet has a sharp base that separates the basal halite from the sylvite cap of the underlying bed. In some cases, the separation is also marked by bituminous partings. The bottom-most halite in each dm-thick bed consists of halite aggregates with cumulate textures that pass upward into large, but delicate, primary chevrons and cornets. Clusters of this chevron halite swell upward to create a cm-scale hummocky boundary with the overlying sylvite (Figure 5c; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990).

The sylvite member of a sylvinite couplet consists of granular aggregates of small transparent halite cubes and rounded grains of red sylvite (with some euhedral sylvite hoppers) infilling the swales in the underlying hummocky halite (Figure 5b,c). The sylvite layer is usually thick enough to bury the highest protuberances of the halite, so that the top of each sylvite layer, and the top of the couplet, is flat. Dissolution pipes and intercrystalline cavities are noticeably absent, although some chevrons show rounded coigns. Intercalated marker beds, formed during times of brine pool freshening, are composed of a finely laminated bituminous shale, with dolomite and anhydrite.

The sylvite-halite couplets record combinations of unaltered settle-out and bottom-nucleated growth features, indicating primary chemical sediment accumulating in shallow perennial brine pools (Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). Based on the crystal size, the close association of halites with sylvite layers, their lateral continuity and the manner in which sylvite mantles overlie chevron halites, the sylvites are interpreted as primary precipitates. Sylvite first formed at the air-brine surface or within the uppermost brine mass and then sank to the bottom to form well-sorted accumulations. As sylvite is a prograde salt it, like halite, probably grew during times of cooling of the brine mass (Figure 8a). These times of cooling could have been diurnal (day/night) or weather-front induced changes in the above-brine air temperatures. Similar cumulate sylvite deposits form as ephemeral bottom accumulations on the floor of modern Lake Dabuxum in China during its more saline phases.


The subsequent mosaic textural overprint seen in many of the Mulhouse sylvite layers was probably produced by postdepositional modification of the crystal boundaries, much in the same way as mosaic halite is formed by recrystallisation of raft and cumulate halite during shallow burial. Temperature-based inclusion studies in both the sylvite and the halites average 63°C, suggesting solar heating of surface brines as precipitation took place (Figure 8b; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). Similar high at-surface brine temperatures are not unusual in many modern brine pools, especially those subject to periodic density stratification and heliothermometry (Warren 2016; Chapter 2).

Mineralogically, potash evaporites in the Mulhouse Basin in the Rhine Graben (also known as the Alsatian (Alsace) or Wittelsheim Potash district) contain sylvite with subordinate carnallite, but lack the abundant MgSO4 salts characteristic of the evaporation of modern seawater. The Rhine graben formed during the Oligocene, via crustal extension, related to mantle upwelling. It was, and is, a continental graben typified by high geothermal gradients along its rift axis. In depositional setting, it is not dissimilar to pree-120,000-year potash fill stage in the Quaternary Danakil Basin or the Dead Sea during deposition of potash salts in the Pliocene Sedom Fm. The role of a high-temperature geothermal inflow in defining the CaCl2 nature of the potash-precipitating brines, versus a derivation from a MgSO4-depleted marine feed, is considered significant in the Rhine Graben deposits, but is poorly understood and still not resolved (Hardie, 1990; Cendón et al., 2008). World ocean chemistry in the Oligocene is on a shoulder between the MgSO4-depleted CaCl2-rich oceans of the Cretaceous and the MgSO4-enriched oceans of the Neogene (Figure 4).


Cendón et al. (2008) conclude brine reaction processes were the most important factors controlling the major-ion (Mg, Ca, Na, K, SO4, and Cl) evolution of Mulhouse brines (Figure 9a-d). A combined analysis of fluid inclusions in primary textures by Cryo-SEM-EDS with sulphate- d34S, d18O and 87Sr/86Sr isotope ratios revealed likely hydrothermal inputs and recycling of Permian evaporites, particularly during the more advanced stages of evaporation that laid down the Salt IV member. Bromine levels imply an increasingly concentrated brine at that time (Figure 9a). The lower part of the Salt IV (S2 and S1) likely evolved from an initial marine input (Figure 9b-d).

Throughout, the basin was disconnected from direct marine hydrographic connection and was one of a series of sub-basins formed in an active rift setting, where tectonic variations influenced sub-basin interconnections and chemical signatures of input waters. Sulphate-d34S shows Oligocene marine-like signatures at the base of the Salt IV member (Figure 9c, d). However, enriched sulphate-d18O reveals the importance of synchronous re-oxidation processes.

As evaporation progressed, other non-marine or marine-modified inputs from neighbouring basins became more important. This is demonstrated by increases in K concentrations in brine inclusions and Br in halite, sulphate isotopes trends, and 87Sr/86Sr ratios (Figure 9b, c). The recycling (dissolution) of previously precipitated evaporites of Permian age was increasingly important with ongoing evaporation. In combination, this chemistry supports the notion of a connection of the Mulhouse Basin with basins situated north of Mulhouse. The brine evolution eventually reached sylvite precipitation. Hence, the chemical signature of the resulting brines is not 100% compatible with global seawater chemistry changes. Instead, the potash phase is tied to a hybrid inflow, with significant but decreasing marine input.

There was likely an initial marine source, but this occurred within a series of rift-valley basin depressions for which there was no direct hydrographic connection to the open ocean, even at the time the Middle Salt Member (potash-entraining) was first deposited (Cendon et al., 2008). That is, the general hydrological evolution of the primary textured evaporites in the Mulhouse basin sump is better explained as a restricted sub-basin with an initial marine-seepage stage. This gradually changed to ≈ 40% marine source near the beginning of evaporite precipitation, with the rest of hydrological inputs being non-marine. There was a significant contribution of solutes from recycled, in part diapiric, Permian evaporites, likely remobilised by the tectonics driving the formation of the rift valley (Hinsken et al., 2007; Cendon et al., 2008). The general proportion of solutes did not change substantially over the time of evaporite precipitation. However, as the basin restriction increased, the formerly marine inputs changed to continental, diapiric or marine-modified inputs, perhaps fed from neighbouring basins north of Mulhouse basin. As in the Ethiopian Danakhil potash-rift, it is likely brine interactions occurred both during initial and early post-depositional reflux overprinting of the original potash salt beds.


West Canadian potash (Devonian)

The Middle Devonian (Givetian) Prairie Evaporite Formation is a widespread potash-entraining halite sequence deposited in the Elk Point Basin, an early intracratonic phase of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin (WCSB; Chipley and Kyser, 1989). Today, it is the world’s predominant source of MOP fertiliser (Warren, 2016). The flexure that formed the basin and its subsealevel accommodation space was a distal downwarp to, and driven by, the early stages of the Antler Orogeny (Root, 2001). Texturally and geochemically the potash layers in the basin show the effects of multiple alterations and replacements of its potash minerals, especially interactions between sylvite and carnallite in a variably recrystallised halite host.

Regionally halite constitutes a large portion of the four formations that make up the Devonian Elk Point Group (Figure 10): 1) the Lotsberg (Lower and Upper Lotsberg Salt), 2) the Cold Lake (Cold Lake Salt), 3) the Prairie Evaporite (Whitkow and Leofnard Salt), and 4) the Dawson Bay (Hubbard Evaporite). Today the remnants of the Middle Devonian Prairie Evaporite Formation constitute a bedded unit some 220 metres thick, which lies atop the irregular topography of the platform carbonates of the Winnipegosis Fm. Extensive solutioning of the various salts has given rise to an irregular thickness to the formation and the local absence of salt (Figure 11a).


The Elk Point Group was deposited within what is termed the Middle Devonian “Elk Point Seaway,” a broad intracratonic sag basin extending from North Dakota and northeastern Montana at its southern extent north through southwestern Manitoba, southern and central Saskatchewan, and eastern to northern Alberta (Figure 11a). Its Pacific coast was near the present Alberta-British Columbia border, and the basin was centred at approximately 10°S latitude. To the north and west the basin was bound by a series of tectonic ridges and arches; but, due to subsequent erosion, the true eastern extent is unknown (Mossop and Shetsen, 1994). In northern Alberta, the Prairie Evaporite is correlated with the Muskeg and Presqu’ile formations (Rogers and Pratt, 2017).

Hydrographic isolation of the intracratonic basin from its marine connection resulted in the deposition of a drawndown sequence of basinwide (platform-dominant) evaporites with what is a uniquely high volume of preserved potash salts deposited within a clayey halite host. The potash resource in this basin far exceeds that of any other known potash basin in the world.


Potash geology

Potash deposits mined in Saskatchewan are all found within the upper 60-70 m of the Prairie Evaporite Formation, at depths of more than 400 to 2750 metres beneath the surface of the Saskatchewan Plains. Within the Prairie Evaporite, there are four main potash-bearing members, in ascending stratigraphic order they are: Esterhazy, White Bear, Belle Plaine and Patience Lake members (Figure 11b). Each member is composed of various combinations of halite, sylvite, sylvinite, and carnallitite, with occurrences of sylvite versus carnallite reliably definable using wireline signatures (once the wireline is calibrated to core or mine control - Figure 12; Fuzesy, 1982).

The Patience Lake Member is the uppermost Prairie Evaporite member and is separated from the Belle Plaine by 3-12 m of barren halite (Holter, 1972). Its thickness ranges from 0-21 m and averages 12 m, its top 7-14 m is made up halite with clay bands and stratiform sylvite. This is the targeted ore unit in conventional mines in the Saskatoon and Lanigan areas and is the solution-mined target, along with the underlying Belle Plaine Member, at the Mosaic Belle Plaine potash facility. The Belle Plaine member is separated from the Esterhazy by the White Bear Marker beds made up of some 15 m of low-grade halite, clay seams and sylvinite. The Belle Plaine Member is more carnallite-prone than the Patience Lake member (Figure 12). It is the ore unit in the conventional mines at Rocanville and Esterhazy (Figure 11b) where its thickness ranges from 0-18 m and averages around 9 m. In total, the Prairie Evaporite Formation does not contain any significant MgSO4 minerals (kieserite, polyhalite etc.) although some members do contain abundant carnallite. This mineralogy indicates precipitation from a Devonian seawater/brine chemistry somewhat different from today’s, with inherently lower relative proportions of sulphate and lower Mg/Ca ratios (Figure 4).

The Prairie Evaporite Fm. is nonhalokinetic throughout the basin, it is more than 200 m thick in the potash mining district in Saskatoon and 140 m thick in the Rocanville area to the southeast (Figure 11a; Yang et al., 2009). The Patience Lake member is the main target for conventional mining near Saskatoon. The Esterhazy potash member rises close to the surface in the southeastern part of Saskatchewan near Rocanville and on into Manitoba. This is a region where the Patience Lake Member is thinner or completely dissolved (Figure 11b). Over the area of mineable interest in the Patience Lake Member, centred on Saskatoon, the ore bed currently slopes downward only slightly in a westerly direction, but deepens more strongly to the south at a rate of 3-9 m/km. Mines near Saskatoon are at depths approaching a kilometre and so are nearing the limits of currently economic shaft mining.

The main shaft for the Colonsay Mine, which took IMC Global Inc. more than five years to complete through a water-saturated sediment column, finally reached the target ore body at a depth of 960 metres. Such depths and a southerly dip to the ore means that the conventional shaft mines near Saskatoon define a narrow WNW-ESE band of conventional mining activity (Figure 11c). To the south potash is recovered from greater depths by solution mining; for example, the Belle Plaine operation leaches potash from the Belle Plaine member at a depth of 1800m.

The Prairie Evaporite typically thins southwards in the basin; although local thickening occurs where carnallite, not sylvite, is the dominant potash mineral (Worsley and Fuzesy, 1979). The Patience Lake member is mined at the Cory, Allan and Lanigan mines, and the Esterhazy Member is mined in the Rocanville area (Figure 11c). Ore mined from the 2.4 m thick Esterhazy Member in eastern Saskatchewan contain minimal amounts of insolubles (≈1%), but considerable quantities of carnallite (typically 1%, but up to 10%) and this reduces the average KCl grade value to an average of 25% K2O. The converse is true for ore mined from the Patience Lake potash member in western Saskatchewan near Saskatoon, where carnallite is uncommon in the Cory and Allan mines. The mined ore thickness is a 2.74-3.35 metre cut off near the top of the 3.66-4.57metre Prairie Lake potash member. Ore grade is 20-26% K2O and inversely related to thickness (Figure 12). The insoluble content is 4-7%, mostly clay and markedly higher than in the Rocanville mines.


A typical sylvinite ore zone in the Patience Lake member can be divided into four to six units, based on potash rock-types and clay seams (Figures 12, 13a; M1-M6 of Boys, 1990). Units are mappable and have been correlated throughout the PCS Cory Mine with varying degrees of success, dependent on partial or complete loss of section from dissolution. Potash deposition appears to have been early and related to short-term brine seaway cooling and syndepositional brine reflux. So the potash layering (M1-M6) is cyclic, expressed in the repetitive distribution of hematite and other insoluble minerals (Figure 13). Desiccation polygons, desiccation cracks, subvertical microkarst pits and chevron halite crystals indicate that the Patience Lake member that encompasses the potash ore was deposited in and just beneath a shallow-brine, salt-pan environment (Figure 13b; Boys, 1990; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990; Brodlyo and Spencer, 1987; pers. obs).

Clay seams form characteristic thin stratigraphic segregations throughout the potash ore zone(s) of the Prairie Evaporite, as well as disseminated intervals, and constitute about 6% of the ore as mined. For example, the insoluble minerals found in the PCS Cory samples are, in approximate order of decreasing abundance: dolomite, clay [illite, chlorite (including swelling-chlorite/chlorite), and septechlorite, quartz, anhydrite, hematite, and goethite. Clay minerals make up about one-third of the total insolubles: other minor components include: potassium feldspar, hydrocarbons, and sporadic non-diagnostic palynomorphs (Figure 13; Boys, 1990).

In all mines, the clays tend to occur as long continuous seams or marker layers between the potash zones and are mainly composed of detrital chlorite and illite, along withauthigenic septechlorite, montmorillonite and sepiolite (Mossman et al., 1982; Boys, 1990). Of the two chlorite minerals, septechlorite is the more thermally stable. The septechlorite, sepiolite and vermiculite very likely originated as direct products of settle-out, syndepositional dissolution or early diagenesis under hypersaline conditions from a precursor that was initially eolian dust settling to the bottom of a vast brine seaway. The absence of the otherwise ubiquitous septechlorite from Second Red Beds west of the zero-edge of the evaporite basin supports this concept (Figure 9, 10).


Potash Textures

Texturally, at the cm-scale, potash salt beds in the Prairie Evaporite (both carnallitite and sylvinite) lack the lateral continuity seen in primary potash textures in the Oligocene of the Mulhouse Basin (Figure 14). Prairie potash probably first formed as syndepositional secondary precipitates and alteration products at very shallow depths just beneath the sediment surface. These early prograde precipitates were then modified to varying degrees by ongoing fluid flushing in the shallow burial environment. The cyclic depositional distribution of disseminated insolubles as the clay marker beds was possibly due to a combination of source proximity, periodic enrichment during times of brine freshening and the strengthening of the winds blowing detritals out over the brine seaway. Possible intra-potash disconformities, created by dissolution of overlying potash-bearing salt beds, are indicated by an abundance of residual hematite in clay seams with some cutting subvertically into the potash bed. Except in, and near, dissolution levels and collapse features, the subsequent redistribution of insolubles, other than iron oxides, is not significant.

In general, halite-sylvite (sylvinite) rocks in the Prairie Evaporite ore zones generally show two end member textures; 1) the most common is a recrystallised polygonal mosaic texture with individual crystals ranging from millimetres to centimetres and sylvite grain boundaries outlined by concentrations of blood-red halite (Figure 14a). 2) The other end member texture is a framework of euhedral and subhedral halite cubes enclosed by anhedral crystals of sylvite (Figure 14b). This is very similar to ore textures in the Salado Formation of New Mexico interpreted as early passive precipitates in karstic voids.

Petrographically, the halite-carnallite (carnallitite) rocks display three distinct textures. Most halite-carnallite rocks contain isolated centimetre-sized cube mosaics of halite enclosed by poikilitic carnallite crystals (Figure 14c); 1) Individual halite cubes are typically clear, with occasional cloudy crystal cores that retain patches of syndepositional growth textures (Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). 2) The second texture is coarsely crystalline halite-carnallite with equigranular, polygonal mosaic textures. In zones where halite overlies bedded anhydrite, most of the halite is clear with only the occasional crystal showing fluid inclusion banding.

Bedded halite away from the ore zones generally retains a higher proportion of primary depositional textures typical of halite precipitation in shallow ephemeral saline pans (Figure 14d; Brodylo and Spencer, 1987). Crystalline growth fabrics, mainly remnants of vertically-elongate halite chevrons, are found in 50-90% of the halite from many intervals in the Prairie Evaporite. Many of the chevrons are truncated by irregular patches of clear halite that formed as early diagenetic cements in syndepositional karst.

In contrast, the halite hosting the potash ore layers lacks well-defined primary textures but is dominated by intergrown mosaics. From the regional petrology and the lower than expected Br levels in halite in the Prairie Evaporite Formation, Schwerdtner (1964), Wardlaw and Watson (1966) and Wardlaw (1968) postulated a series of recrystallisation events forming sylvite after carnallite as a result of periodic flushing by hypersaline solutions. This origin as a secondary precipitate (via incongruent dissolution) is supported by observations of intergrowth and overgrowth textures (McIntosh and Wardlaw, 1968), collapse and dissolution features at various scales and timings (Gendzwill, 1978; Warren 2017), radiometric ages (Baadsgaard, 1987) and palaeomagnetic orientations of the diagenetic hematite linings associated with the emplacement of the potash (Koehler, 1997; Koehler et al., 1997).

Dating of clear halite crystals in void fills within the ore levels shows that some of the exceptionally coarse and pure secondary halites forming pods in the mined potash horizons likely precipitated during early burial, while other sparry halite void fills formed as late as Pliocene-Pleistocene (Baadsgard, 1987). Even today, alteration and remobilisation of the sylvite and carnallite and the local precipitation of bischofite are ongoing processes, related to the encroachment of the contemporary dissolution edge or the ongoing stoping of chimneys fed by deep artesian circulation (pers obs.).


Fluid inclusion studies support the notion of primary textures (low formation temperatures in chevron halite in the Prairie evaporite and an associated thermal separation of non-sylvite and sylvite associated halite (Figure 15; Chipley et al., 1990). Most fluid inclusions found in primary, fluid inclusion-banded halite associated with the Prairie potash salts contain sylvite daughter crystals at room temperature or nucleate them on cooling (e.g. halite at 915 and 945 m depth in the Winsal Osler well; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). In contrast, no sylvite daughter crystals have been observed in fluid inclusions outlining primary growth textures from chevron halites away from the potash deposits.

The data illustrated as Figure 15 clearly show that inclusion temperatures in primary halite chevrons are cooler than those in halites collected in intervals nearer the potash levels. Sylvite daughter crystal dissolution temperatures from fluid inclusions in the cloudy centres of halite crystals associated with potash salts are generally warmer (Brodlyo and Spencer, 1987; Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). Sylvite and carnallite daughter crystal dissolution temperatures from fluid inclusions in fluid inclusion banded halite from bedded halite-carnallite are the hottest. This mineralogically-related temperature schism establishes that potash salts occur in stratigraphic intervals in the halite where syndepositional surface brines were warmer. In the 50° - 70°C temperature range there could be overlap with heliothermal brine lake waters. Even so, these warmer potash temperatures imply parent brines would likely be moving via a shallow reflux drive and are not the result of primary bottom nucleation (in contrast to primary sylvite in the Mulhouse Basin). Whether the initial Prairie reflux potash precipitate was sylvite or carnallite is open to interpretation (Lowenstein and Hardie, 1990).


Fluid evolution from mineral and isotope chemistry

Analysis of subsurface waters from various Canadian potash mines and collapse anomalies in the Prairie Evaporite suggest that, after initial potash precipitation, a series of recrystallising fluids accessed the evaporite levels at multiple times throughout the burial history of the Prairie Formation (Chipley, 1995; Koehler, 1997; Koehler et al., 1997). Likewise, the isotope systematics and K-Ar ages of sylvite in both halite and sylvite layers indicate that the Prairie Evaporite was variably recrystallised during fluid overprint events (Table 2; Figure 16). These event ages are all younger than original deposition (≈390Ma) and likely correspond to ages of various tectonic events that influenced subsurface hydrology along the western margin of North America.


Chemical compositions of inclusion fluids in the Prairie Evaporite, as determined by their thermometric properties, reveal at least two distinct waters played a role in potash formation: a Na-K-Mg-Ca-Cl brine, variably saturated with respect to sylvite and carnallite; and a Na-K-Cl brine (Horita et al., 1996). That is, contemporary inclusion water chemistry is a result in part of ongoing fluid-rock interaction. The ionic proportions in some halite samples are not the result of simple evaporation of seawater to the sylvite bittern stage (Figure 17a; Horita et al., 1996). There is a clear separation of values from chevron halites in samples from the Lanigan and Bredenbury (K-2 area) mines, which plot closer to the concentration trend seen in halite from modern seawater and values from clear or sparry halite. The latter encompass much lower K and higher Br related to fractionation tied to recrystallisation. Likewise, the influence of ongoing halite and potash salt dissolution is evident in the chemistry of shaft and mine waters with mine level waters showing elevated Mg and K values, (Figure 17b; Wittrup and Kyser, 1990; Chipley, 1995). What is more the mine waters of today show  substantial overlap with waters collected more than thirty years ago (Jensen et al., 2006)


This notion of ongoing fluid-rock interaction controlling the chemistry of mine waters is supported by dD and d18O values of inclusion fluids in both halite and sylvite, which range from -146 to 0‰ and from -17.6 to -3.0‰, respectively (Figure 18). Most of the various preserved isotope values are different from those of evaporated seawater, which should have dD and d18O values near 0‰.

Furthermore, the dD and d18O values of inclusion fluids are probably not the result of precipitation of the evaporite minerals from a brine that was a mixture of seawater and meteoric water. The low latitude position of the basin during the Middle Devonian (10-15° from the equator), the required lack of meteoric water to precipitate basinwide evaporites, and the expected dD and d18O values of any meteoric water in such a setting, make this an unlikely explanation. Rather, the dD and d18O values of inclusion fluids in the halites reflect ambient and evolving brine chemistries as the fluids in inclusions in the various growth layers were intermittently trapped during the subsurface evolution of the Prairie Formation in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. They also suggest that periodic migration of nonmarine subsurface water was a significant component of the crossflowing basinal brines throughout much of the recrystallisation history (Chipley, 1995).

Prairie carnallite-sylvite alteration over time

Ongoing alteration of carnallite to sylvite and the reverse reaction means a sylvite-carnallite bed must be capable of gaining or losing fluid at the time of alteration. That is, any reacting potash beds must be permeable at the time of the alteration. By definition, there must be fluid egress to drive incongruent alteration of carnallite to sylvite or fluid ingress to drive the alteration of sylvite to carnallite. There can also be situations in the subsurface where the volume of undersaturated fluid crossflow was sufficient to remove (dissolve) significant quantities of the more soluble evaporite salts. Many authors looking at the Prairie evaporite argue that the fluid access events during the alteration of carnallite to sylvite or the reverse, or the complete leaching of the soluble potash salts was driven by various tectonic events (Figure 16). In the early stages of burial alteration (few tens of metres from the landsurface) the same alteration processes can be driven by varying combinations of brine reflux, prograde precipitation and syndepositional karstification, all driven by changes in brine level and climate, which in turn may not be related to tectonism (Warren, 2016; Chapters 2 and 8 for details).

In the potash areas of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, the notion of 10-100 km lateral continuity is a commonly stated precept for both sylvinite and carnallitite units across the extent of the Prairie Evaporite. But when the actual distribution and scale of units are mapped based on mined intercepts, there are numerous 10-100 metre-scale discontinuities (anomalies) present indicating fluid ingress or egress (Warren, 2017).


Sometimes ore beds thin and alteration degrades the ore level (Section A-A1-A2), other times these discontinuities can locally enrich sylvite ore grade (B-B1; Figure 19). Discontinuities or salt anomalies are much more widespread in the Prairie evaporite than mentioned in much of the potash literature (Figure 19). Mining for maintenance of ore grade shows that unexpectedly intersecting an anomaly in a sylvite ore zone can have a range of outcomes ranging from the inconsequential to the catastrophic, in part because there is more than one type of salt anomaly or “salt horse" (Warren, 2017).


Figure 20 summarises what are considered the three most common styles of salt anomaly in the sylvite ore beds of the Prairie Evaporite, namely 1) Washouts, 2) Leach anomalies, 3) Collapse anomalies. These ore bed disturbances and their occurrence styles are in part time-related. Washouts are typically early (eogenetic) and defined as... “salt-filled V- or U-shaped structures, which transect the normal bedded sequence and obliterate the stratigraphy” (Figure 20a; Mackintosh and McVittie, 1983, p. 60). They are typically enriched in, or filled by, insoluble materials in their lower one-third and medium-coarse-grained sparry halite in the upper two thirds. Up to several metres across, when traced laterally they typically pass into halite-cemented paleo-sinks and cavern networks (e.g. Figure 20b). Most washouts likely formed penecontemporaneous to the potash beds they transect, that is, they are preserved examples of synkarst, with infilling of the karst void by a slightly later halite cement. They indicate watertable lowering in a potash-rich saline sump. This leaching was followed soon after by a period of higher watertables and brine saturations, when halite cements occluded the washouts and palaeocaverns. Modern examples of this process typify the edges of subcropping and contemporary evaporite beds, as about the recently exposed edges of the modern Dead Sea. As such, “washouts” tend to indicate relatively early interactions of the potash interval with undersaturated waters, they may even be a part of the syndepositional remobilisation hydrology that focused, and locally enriched, potash ore levels.

In a leach anomaly zone, the stratabound sylvinite ore zone has been wholly or partially replaced by barren halite, without significantly disturbing the normal stratigraphic sequence (clay marker beds) which tend to continue across the anomaly (Figure 20b). Some loss of volume or local thinning of the stratigraphy is typical in this type of salt anomaly. Typically saucer-shaped, they have diameters ranging from a few metres up to 400m. Less often, they can be linear features that are up to 20 m wide and 1600m long. Leach zones can form penecontemporaneously due to depressions and back-reactions in the ore beds, or by later low-energy infiltration of Na-saturated, K-undersaturated brines. The latter method of formation is also likely on the margins of collapse zones, creating a hybrid situation typically classified as a leach-collapse anomaly (Mackintosh and McVittie, 1983; McIntosh and Wardlaw, 1968).

Of the three types of salt anomaly illustrated, leach zone processes are the least understood. Historically, when incongruent dissolution was the widely accepted interpretation for loss of unit thickness in the Prairie Evaporite, many leach anomalies were considered metasomatic. Much of the original metasomatic interpretation was based on decades of detailed work in the various salt mines of the German Zechstein Basin. There, in an endemic halokinetic terrane, evaporite textures were considered more akin to metamorphic rocks, and the term metasomatic alteration was commonly used when explaining leach anomalies (Bochert and Muir, 1964, Braitsch, 1971). In the past two decades, general observations of the preservation of primary chevron halite in most bedded evaporites away from the potash layers in the Prairie Evaporite have led to reduced use of notions of widespread metamorphic-like metasomatic or solid-state alteration processes in bedded evaporites. There is just too much preserved primary texture in the bedded salt units adjacent to potash beds to invoke pervasive burial metasomatism of the Prairie Evaporite.


So how do leach anomalies, as illustrated in Figure 20b, occur in nonhalokinetic settings? One possible explanation is given by the depositional textures documented in anomalies in the Navarra Potash Province (Figure 21). There, the underlying and overlying salt stratigraphy is contiguous, while the intervening sylvite passed laterally into a syndepositional anomaly or “salt horse” created by an irregular topography on the salt pan floor prior to the deposition of onlapping primary sylvinite layers (see Warren 2016, 2017 for detailed discussion)

On the other hand, in halokinetic situations (which characterises much Zechstein salt) solid-state alteration via inclusion related migration in flowing salt beds is a well-documented set of texture-altering processes (diffusion metasomatism). Most workers in such halokinetic systems would agree that there must have been an original stratiform potassium segregation present during or soon after deposition related to initial precipitation, fractional dissolution and karst-cooling precipitation. But what is controlling potassium distribution now in the Zechstein salts is a recrystallised and remobilised set of textures, which preserve little or no crystal-scale evidence of primary conditions (Warren, 2016; Chapter 6). The complex layering in such deposits may preserve a broad depositional stratigraphy, but the decimetre to metre scale mineral distributions are indications of complex interactions of folds, overfolds, and disaggregation with local flow thickening. We shall return to this discussion of Zechstein potash textures in the next section dealing with devolatisation of hydrated salts such as carnallite. in zones of local heating

Collapse zones in the Prairie Evaporite are characterized by a loss of recognizable sylvinite ore strata, which is replaced by less saline brecciated, recemented and recrystallized material, with the breccia blocks typically made of the intrasalt or roof lithologies (Figure 20c), so angular fragments of the Second Red beds and dolostones of the Dawson Bay Formation are the most conspicuous components of the collapse features in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. When ore dissolution is well developed, all the halite can dissolve, along with the potash salts, and the overlying strata collapse into the cavity (these are classic solution collapse features). Transitional leached zones typically separate the collapsed core from normal bedded potash. Such collapse structures indicate a breach of the ore layers by unsaturated waters, fed either from below or above. For example, in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, well-developed collapse structures tend to occur over the edges and top Devonian mud mounds, while in the New Mexico potash zone the collapse zones are related to highs in the underlying Capitan reef trend (Warren, 2017). Leaching fluids may have come from below or above to form collapse structures at any time after initial deposition. When connected to a water source, these are the subsurface features that when intersected can quickly move the mining operation out of the salt into an adjacent aquifer system, a transition that led to flooding in most of the mine-lost operations listed earlier.

Identifying at the mine scale the set of processes that created a salt anomaly in a sylvite bed also has implications in terms of its likely influence on mine stability whatever decision is made on how to deal with it as part of the ongoing mine operation (Warren, 2016, 2017). Syndepositional karst fills and leach anomalies are least likely to be problematic if penetrated during mining, as the aquifer system that formed them is likely no longer active. In contrast, penetration or removal of the region around a salt-depleted collapse breccia may lead to uncontrollable water inflows and ultimately to the loss of the mine.

Unfortunately, in terms of production planning, the features of the periphery of a leach anomaly can be similar if not identical to those in the alteration halo that typically forms about the leached edge a collapse zone. The processes of sylvite recrystallisation that define the edge of collapse anomaly can lead to local enrichment in sylvite levels, making these zones surrounding the collapse core attractive extraction targets (Boys 1990, 1993). Boundaries of any alteration halo about a collapse centre are not concentric, but irregular, making the prediction of a feature’s geometry challenging, if not impossible. The safest course of action is to avoid mining salt anomalies, but longwall techniques make this difficult and so they must be identified and dealt with (see Warren 2017).


Cooking sylvite: Dykes & sills in potash salts

 

In addition to; 1) primary sylvite and 2) sylvite/carnallite alteration via incongruent transformation in burial, there is a third mode of sylvite formation related to 3) igneous heating driving devolatisation of carnallitite, which can perhaps be considered a form of incongruent melting (Warren, 2016). And so, at a local scale (measured in metres to tens of metres) in potash beds cut by igneous intrusions, there are a number of documented thermally-driven alteration styles and thermal haloes. Most are created by the intrusion of hot doleritic or basaltic dykes and sills into cooler salt masses, or the outflow of extrusive igneous flows over cooler salt beds (Knipping, 1989; Grishina et al, 1992, 1998; Gutsche, 1988; Steinmann et al., 1999; Wall et al., 2010). Hot igneous material interacts with somewhat cooler anhydrous salt masses to create narrow, but distinct, heat and mobile fluid-release envelopes, also reflected in the resulting salt textures. At times, relatively rapid magma emplacement can lead to linear breakout trends outlined by phreatomagmatic explosion craters, as imaged in portions of the North Sea (Wall et al., 2010) and the Danakhil/Dallol potash beds in Ethiopia (Salty Matters, May 1, 2015).

Based on studies of inclusion chemistry and homogenization temperatures in fluid inclusions in bedded halite near intrusives, it seems that the extent of the influence of a dolerite sill or dyke in bedded salt is marked by fluid-inclusion migration, evidenced by the disappearance of chevron structures and consequent formation of clear halite with a different set of higher-temperature inclusions. Such a migration envelope is well documented in bedded Cambrian halites intruded by end-Permian dolerite dykes in the Tunguska region of Siberia (Grishina et al., 1992).

Defining h as the thickness of the dolerite intrusion in these salt beds, and d as the distance of the halite from the edge of the intrusion, then the disappearance of chevrons occurs at greater distances above than below the intrusive sill. For d/h < 0.9 below the intrusion, CaCl2, CaCl2, KCl and nCaCl2, mMgCl2 solids occur in association with water-free and liquid-CO2 inclusions, with H2S, SCO and orthorhombic or glassy S8. For a d/h of 0.2-2 above the intrusion, H2S-bearing liquid-CO2 inclusions are typical, with various amounts of water. Thus, as a rule of thumb, an alteration halo extends up to twice the thickness of the dolerite sill above the sill and almost the thickness of the sill below (Figure 22).

In a series of autoclavation laboratory experiments, Fabricius and Rose-Hampton (1988) found that; 1) at atmospheiric pressure carnallite melts incongruently to sylvite and hydrated MgCl2 at a temperature of 167.5°C. 2) the melting/transformation temperature increase to values in excess of 180°C as the pressure increases (Figure 23).


A similar situation occurs in the dyke-intruded halite levels exposed in the mines of the Werra-Fulda district of Germany (Steinmann et al., 1999; Schofield, et al., 2014). There the Herfa-Neurode potash mine is located in the Werra-Fulda Basin in the Hessian district of central Germany (Figure 24a). The targeted ore levels consist of the carnallite-rich Kaliflöz Hessen (K1H) and Kaliflöz Thüringen (K1Th) intervals, which form part of the Zechstein 1 (Z1) bedded Werra salt succession (Warren, 2016). In the mine the K1H and K1Th units range in thickness from 2 m to 10 m, are generally subhorizontal and occur at a depth of 650–710 m below the present-day surface.


In the later Tertiary, basaltic melts intruded these Zechstein evaporites as numerous sub-vertical dykes, but only a few dykes attained the Miocene landsurface. Basaltic melt production was related to regional volcanic activity some 10 to 25 Ma. Basalts exposed in the mine walls, where it cuts non-hydrous units of halite or anhydrite, are typically subvertical dykes, rather than subhorizontal sills. The basalts are phonolitic tephrites, limburgites, basanites and olivine nephelinites. Dyke margins are usually vitrified, forming a microlitic limburgite glass along dyke edges in contact with halite (Figure 24b; Knipping, 1989). At the contact on the evaporite side of the glassy rim, there is a cm-wide carapace of high-temperature salts (mostly anhydrite and ferroan carbonates). Further out, the effect of the high-temperature envelope is denoted by transitions to clear halite, with higher temperature fluid inclusions (Knipping 1989). All of this metre-scale alteration is an anhydrous alteration halo, the halite did not melt (melting temperature of 804°C), rather than migrating, the fluid driving recrystallisation was mostly from entrained brine/gas inclusions. The dolerite/basalt interior of the basaltic dyke is likewise altered and salt soaked, with clear, largely inclusion-free halite typically filling vesicles in the basalt.

Heating of hydrated (carnallitic) salt layers, adjacent to a dyke or sill, tends to drive off the water of crystallisation (chemical or hydration thixotropy) at much lower temperatures than that at which anhydrous salts, such as halite or anhydrite, thermally melt (Figure 24c; Table 3). For example, in the Fulda region, the thermally-driven release of water of crystallisation within carnallitic beds creates thixotropic or subsurface “peperite” textures as carnallitite alters to sylvinite layers. These are layers where heated water of crystallisation escaped from the hydrated-salt lattice. Dehydration-driven loss of mechanical strength focuses zones of magma entry into particular subhorizontal horizons in the salt mass, wherever hydrated salt layers were present. In contrast, dyke and sill margins are much sharper and narrower in zones of contact with anhydrous salt intervals and the intrusive is sub-vertical to steeply dipping (Figure 24b versus 24c).

Accordingly, away from the immediate vicinity of the direct thermal aureole, heated and overpressured dehydration waters can enter carnallite halite bed, and drive the creation of extensive soft sediment deformation and peperite textures in hydrated layer (Figure 24c). Mineralogically, sylvite and coarse recrystallised halite dominate the salt fraction in the peperite intervals of the Herfa-Neurode mine. Sylvite in the altered zone is a form of dehydrated carnallite, not a primary-textured salt. Across the Fulda region, such altered zones and deformed units can extend along former carnallite layer to tens or even a hundred or more metres from the dyke feeder. Ultimately, the deformed potash bed passes back out into the unaltered bed, which retains abundant inclusion-rich halite and carnallite (Schofield et al., 2014).

That is, nearer the basalt dyke, the carnallite is largely transformed into inclusion-poor halite and sylvite, the result of incongruent flushing of warm saline fluids mobilised from the hydrated carnallite crystal lattice as it was heated by dyke emplacement. During Miocene salt alteration/thermal metamorphism in the Fulda region, NaCl-fluids were mixed with fluids and gases originating from thermally-mobilised crystallisation water in the carnallite, as it converted to sylvite. This brine/gas mixture altered the basalts during post-intrusive cooling, an event which numerical models suggest was quite rapid (Knipping, 1989): a dyke of less than 0.5 m thickness probably cooled to temperatures less than 200°C within 14 days of dyke emplacement.

The contrast in alteration extent between anhydrous and hydrous salt layers shows alteration effects are minimal wherever the emplacement temperature of the magma is below that of the anhydrous salt body as it is next to a basalt dyke. If this is the mechanism driving entry of igneous-related volatiles (gases and liquids) into a salt body, then the distribution of products (including CO2) will be highly inhomogeneous and related to the minerally of the salt unit adjacent to the intrusive. Worldwide, dykes intersecting salt beds tend to widen to become sills in two zones: 1) along evaporite units within the halite mass that contain hydrated salts, such as carnallite or gypsum (Figure 24c) and, 2) where rising magma has ponded and so created laccoliths at the upper or lower halite contact with the adjacent nonsalt strata or against a salt wall (Figure 22 vs 24). The first is a response to a pulse of released water as dyke-driven heating forces the dehydration of hydrated salt layers. The second is a response to the mechanical strength contrast at the salt-nonsalt contact.

In summary, sylvite formed from a carnallite precursor during Miocene salt alteration/thermal metamorphism in the Fulda region, NaCl-fluids were mixed with fluids originating from thermally-mobilised crystallisation water in the carnallite, as it converted to sylvite. This brine mixture altered the basalts during post-intrusive cooling, an event which numerical models suggest was quite rapid (Knipping, 1989): a dyke of less than 0.5 m thickness probably cooled to temperatures less than 200°C within 14 days of dyke emplacement.

How do we produce potash salts?

 

Over this series of three articles focused on current examples of potash production, we have seen there are two main groups of potash minerals currently utilised to make fertiliser, namely, muriate of potash (MOP) and sulphate of potash (SOP). MOP is both mined (generally from a Pre-Neogene sylvinite ore) or produced from brine pans (usually via processing of a carnallitite slurry). In contrast, large volumes of SOP are today produced from brine pans in China and the USA but with only minor production for solid-state ore targets. Historically, SOP was produced from solid-state ores in Sicily, the Ukraine, and Germany but today there are no conventional mines with SOP as the prime output in commercial operation (See Salty Matters, May 12, 2015).

The MgSO4-enriched chemistry of modern seawater makes the economic production of potash bitterns from a seawater-feed highly challenging. Today, there is no marine-fed plant anywhere in the world producing primary sylvite precipitates. However, sylvite is precipitating from a continental brine feed in salt pans on the Bonneville salt flat, Utah. There, a brine field, drawing shallow pore waters from saltflat sediments, supplies suitably low-MgSO4 inflow chemistry to the concentrator pans. Sylvite also precipitates in solar evaporator pans in Utah that are fed brine circulated through the abandoned workings of the Cane Creek potash mine (Table 1).

Large-scale production of MOP fertiliser from potash precipitates created in solar evaporation pans is taking place in perennially subaqueous saline pans of the southern Dead Sea and the Qaidam Basin. In the Dead Sea, the feed brine is pumped from the waters of the northern Dead Sea basin, while in the Qaidam sump the feed is from a brine field drawing pore brines with an appropriate mix of river and basinal brine inputs. In both cases, the resulting feed brine to the final concentrators is relatively depleted in magnesium and sulphate. These source bitterns have ionic proportions not unlike seawater in times of ancient MgSO4-depleted oceans. Carnallitite slurries, not sylvinite, are the MOP precipitates in pans in both regions. When feed chemistry of the slurry is low in halite, then the process to recover sylvite is a cold crystallisation technique. When halite impurity levels in the slurry are higher, sylvite is manufactures using a more energy intensive, and hence more expensive, hot crystallisation technique. Similar sulphate-depleted brine chemistry is used in Salar Atacama, where MOP and SOP are recovered as byproducts of the production of lithium carbonate brines.

Significant volumes of SOP are recovered from a combination of evaporation and cryogenic modification of sulfate-enriched continental brines in pans on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, and Lop Nur, China. When concentrated and processed, SOP is recovered from the processing of a complex series of Mg-K-SO4 double salts (schoenitic) in the Odgden pans fed brines from the Great Salt Lake. The Lop Nur plant draws and concentrates pore waters from a brine field drawing waters from glauberite-polyhalite-entraining saline lake sediments.

All the Quaternary saline lake factories supply less than 20% of the world's potash; the majority comes from the conventional mining of sylvinite ores. The world's largest reserves are held in Devonian evaporites of the Prairie Evaporite in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. Textures and mineral chemistry show that the greater volume of bedded potash salts in this region is not a primary sylvite precipitate. Rather the ore distribution, although stratiform and defined by a series of clay marker beds, actually preserves the effects of multiple modifications and alterations tied to periodic egress and ingress of basinal waters. Driving mechanisms for episodes of fluid crossflow range from syndepositional leaching and reflux through to tectonic pumping and uplift (telogenesis). Ore distribution and texturing reflect local-scale (10-100 metres) discontinuities and anomalies created by this evolving fluid chemistry. Some alteration episodes are relatively benign in terms of mineralogical modification and bed continuity. Others, generally tied to younger incidents (post early Cretaceous) of undersaturated crossflow and karstification, can have substantial effects on ore continuity and susceptibility to unwanted fluid entry. In contrast, ore textures and bed continuity in the smaller-scale sylvinite ores in the Oligocene Mulhouse Basin, France, indicate a primary ore genesis.

What makes it economic?

Across the Quaternary, we need a saline lake brine systems with the appropriate brine proportions, volumes and climate to precipitate the right association of processable potash salts. So far, the price of potash, either MOP or SOP, and the co-associated MgSO4 bitterns, precludes industrial marine-fed brine factories.

In contrast, to the markedly nonmarine locations of potash recovery from the Quaternary sources, almost all pre-Quaternary potash operations extract product from marine-fed basinwide ore hosts during times of MgSO4-depleted and MgSO4-enriched oceans (Warren, 2016; Chapter 11). This time-based dichotomy in potash ore sources with nonmarine hosts in the Quaternary deposits and marine evaporite hosted ore zones in Miocene deposits and older, reflects a simple lack of basinwide marine deposits and appropriate marine chemistry across the Neogene (Warren, 2010). As for all ancient marine evaporites, the depositional system that deposited ancient marine-fed potash deposits was one to two orders of magnitude larger and the resultant deposits were typically thicker stacks than any Quaternary potash settings. The last such “saline giant” potash system was the Solfifera series in the Sicilian basin, deposited as part of the Mediterranean “salinity crisis,” but these potential ore beds are of the less economically attractive MgSO4- enriched marine potash series.

So, what are the factors that favour the formation of, and hence exploration for, additional deposits of exploitable ancient potash? First, large MOP solid-state ore sources are all basinwide, not lacustrine deposits. Within the basinwide association, it seems that intracratonic basins host significantly larger reserves of ore, compared to systems that formed in the more tectonically-active plate-edge rift and suture association. This is a reflection of: 1) accessibility – near the shallow current edge of a salt basin, 2) a lack of a halokinetic overprint and, 3) the setup of longterm, stable, edge-dissolution brine hydrologies that typify many intracratonic basins. Known reserves of potash in the Devonian Prairie evaporite in West Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) are of the order of 50 times that of next largest known deposit, the Permian of the Upper Kama basin, and more than two orders of magnitude larger than any other of the other known exploited deposits (Table 1).

Part of this difference in the volume of recoverable reserves lies in the fact that the various Canadian potash members in the WCSB are still bedded and flat-lying. Beds have not been broken up or steepened, by any subsequent halokinesis. The only set of processes overprinting and remobilising the various potash salts in the WCSB are related to multiple styles and timings of aquifer encroachment on the potash units, and this probably took place at various times since the potash was first deposited, driven mainly by a combination of hinterland uplift and subrosion. In contrast, most of the other significant potash basins listed in Table 10 have been subjected to ongoing combinations of halokinesis and groundwater encroachments, making these beds much less laterally predictable. In their formative stages, the WCSB potash beds were located a substantial distance from the orogenic belt that drove flexural downwarp and creation of the subsealevel sag depression. Like many other intracratonic basins, the WCSB did not experience significant syndepositional compression or rift-related loading.

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Brine evolution and origins of potash ore salts: Primary or secondary? Part 1 of 3

John Warren - Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Introduction

There is a dichotomy in mineralogical associations and precipitation series in both modern and ancient potash ore deposits. Interpretations of ancient potash ore mineralogies across time are generally tied to the evolution of the hydrochemical proportions in modern and ancient oceans. We have already discussed this in previous Salty Matters articles and will not repeat the details here (see August 10, 2015; July 31, 2018).

At times in the past, such as in the Devonian and the Cretaceous, the world ocean was depleted in Mg and SO4 relative to the present-day ocean (Figure 1a). In the relevant literature, this has led to the application of the term MgSO4-depleted versus MgSO4-enriched oceans. In terms of brine evolution, this is related to the gypsum divide, with the term MgSO4-enriched used to describe the ocean chemistry of today and other times in the past, such as in the Permian, when MgSO4 bittern salts typify co-precipitates with sylvite/carnallite (Figure 1b).


The validity of the ocean chemistry argument is primarily based on determinations of inclusion chemistries as measured in chevron halites (Figure 1a; Lowenstein et al., 2014). Inclusions in growth-aligned primary halite chevrons are assumed to preserve the chemical proportions in the ambient oceanic brine precipitating the halite. That is, the working assumption is that pristine aligned-halite chevrons have not been subject to significant diagenetic alteration once the salt was deposited and permeability was lost due to ongoing halite cementation in the shallow (eogenetic) subsurface realm.

The same assumption as to the pristine nature of chevron halite is applied to outcomes of biological experiments where Permian archaeal/halobacterial life has been re-animated using ancient salt samples (Vreeland et al., 2000).

Primary potash ore?

But does the same assumption of pristine texturing across time also apply to the halite layers associated with the world’s potash ores? In my experience of subsurface potash ores and their textures, I have rarely seen primary-chevron halite interlayered with potash ore layers of either sylvite or carnallite. An obvious exception is the pristine interlayering of chevron halite and sylvite in the now-depleted Eocene potash ores of the Mulhouse Basin, France (Lowenstein and Spencer, 1990). There, the sylvite layers intercalate at the cm-scale with chevron halite, and the alternating layering is thought to be related to precipitation driven by temperature fluctuations in a series of shallow density-stratified meromictic brine lakes (documented in the third Salty Matters article).

More typically, ancient potash ore textures are diagenetic and indicate responses to varying degrees of dissolution, brine infiltration and alteration. The simpler styles of brine infiltration consist of a background matrix dominated by cm-dm scale chevron halite layers that have been subject to dissolution and karstification during shallow burial. Resultant cm-dm scale voids typically retain a mm-thick selvedge of CaSO4 lathes and needles, followed by fill of the remaining void by varying amounts of sparry halite, carnallite and sylvite. This type of texture dominates Quaternary stratoid potash layers in the southern Qaidam Basin in China and Cretaceous carnallite-rich layers in the Maha Sarakham Fm in NE Thailand and southern China (Warren, 2016). Then there are the even more altered and recrystallised, but still bedded, textures in the potash ore zones of Devonian Prairie Evaporite of western Canada (Wardlaw, 1968) and potash layers in the Permian Basin in west Texas and New Mexico (Lowenstein, 1988; Holt and Powers, 2011). Beyond this level of diagenetic texturing are the flow-orientated and foliated structural textures of the Permian potash ores in potash mines in the diapiric Zechstein evaporites of Germany and Poland, the Kungurian diapirs of the Cis-Urals of Russia and the Devonian diapirs of the Pripyat Basin.

And so, herein lies the main point of discussion for this and the next two Salty Matters articles, namely, what, where and when is(are) the mechanism(s) or association(s) of hydrochemical mechanisms that sufficiently concentrate or alter a brine’s chemistry to where it precipitates economic levels of a variety of potash salts, as either muriate of potash or sulphate of potash. Notably, there are no Quaternary-age solid-state ore systems that are mined for potash.

In this article, we look at the main modern brine systems where muriate of potash (MOP) is produced economically by solar evaporation (Salar de Atacama, Chile; Qarhan sump, China; and the southern Basin of the Dead Sea). In the second article we will focus on sulphate of potash (SOP) production in Quaternary saline sumps (Great Salt Lake, USA and Lop Nur, China). In the third article we shall discuss depositional and diagenetic characteristics of solid-state potash ores some of the world’s more substantial deposits (e.g. Devonian of western Canada) and relate the observations of ancient potash texture to time-based evolution of potash precipitating brines, and subsequent alteration or the ore textures, which are typically driven by later cross-flushing by one or more pulses of diagenetically-evolved brines.


Potash from brine in Salar de Atacama (MOP in a simple near-uniserial set of brine concentration pans)

Potash production in Salar de Atacama is a byproduct of the output of lithium carbonate from shallow lake brines pumped into a series of solar concentration pans (Figure 2). The inflow feed to the concentrator pans comes from fields of brine wells extracting pore waters from the salt nucleus facies across the central and southern part of the Atacama saltflats (Figure 3a,b). However, Atacama pore brines are not chemically homogeneous across the salar (Alonso and Risacher, 1996; Risacher and Alonso, 1996; Carmona et al., 2000; Pueyo et al. 2017). The most common primary inflow brines to the Atacama sump are sulphate-rich (SO4/Ca > 1), but there are areas in the salt flat at the southern end of the playa, such as those near the Península de Chépica, where pore brines are richer in calcium (SO4/Ca < 1- Figure 4). These brines also contain elevated levels of lithium (Figure 3c; Risacher et al., 2003).


Ion proportions in the natural salar inflows and pore waters are dominated by sodium and chloride, followed by potassium, then magnesium then sulphate in the more saline regions of the salar sump (Figure 4; Lowenstein and Risacher, 2009). In addition, owing to the progressive reduction of porosity with depth, driven mainly by diagenetic halite cementation, the pore brine in the upper 40 meters of the salar sediment column accumulates by advection in the area of greatest porosity, i.e., in this top 40 m of sediments of the salt flat at the southern end of Atacama (Pueyo et al., 2017). When pumped from the hosting salar sediments into the concentrator pans, the final brines contain elevated levels of lithium chloride (≈ 6000 ppm). These lithium-enriched acidic waters are then pumped to a nearby industrial plant and processed to obtain lithium carbonate as the main commercial product.

In a benchmark paper, Pueyo et al. (2017) document the brine evolution and products recovered in the solar pans of Rockwood Lithium GmbH (Figure 2b; formerly Sociedad Chilena del Litio) in the Península de Chépica. There, a bittern paragenesis of salts precipitates that is mostly devoid of magnesium sulphate salt due to the low levels of sulphate attained in the various concentator pans via widespread precipitation of gypsum in the early concentrator pans (Figures 4, 5).


The depletion of sulphate levels in the early concentrators is done via artificial manipulation of ionic proportions in the feeders. Without alteration of the ionic proportion in halite-stage brines, the evaporation of the saltflat brine feeds, which are rich in sulfate, would result in assemblages that, in addition to potassic chlorides, would contain contain problematic magnesium sulfates (such as schoenite, kainite, glaserite as in Great Salt Lake). The presence of such sulphate salts and ions in the liquor feeding the lithium carbonate plant would complicate the lithium carbonate extraction process. So the aim in the Atacama pans is to remove most of the sulphate via constructing a suitably balanced chemistry in the early concentrator brine stage (compare ionic proportion in sulphate between early and end-stage bitterns, as illustrated in Figures 4 and Figure 5a).


Such a sylvite/carnallite brine paragenesis, sans sulphate (as seen in Figure 5), is similar to that envisaged as the feed chemistry for ancient Mg-sulphate-free marine potash deposits (Braitsch, 1971). That is, as the brines pass through the concentrators, with successive pans transitioning to higher salinities, the potash salts carnallite and sylvite precipitate, without the complication of the widespread magnesium sulphate salts, which complicate the processing of modern marine-derived bitterns. Such MgSO4 double-salts typify SOP production in the Ogden Salt flats, with their primary feed of sulphate-rich Great Salt Lake waters. Relative proportions of sulphate are much higher in the Great Salt Lake brine feed (see article 2 in this series).


Once the balance is accomplished by mixing a Ca-rich brine from further up the concentration series, with the natural SO4-brine in an appropriate ratio, the modified brines are then pumped and discharged into the halite ponds of the saltwork circuit (ponds number 17 and 16, as seen in Figures 5 and 6). In these ponds, halite precipitates from the very beginning with small amounts of accessory gypsum as brines are saturated with both minerals. Subsequently, the brines are transferred to increasingly smaller ponds where halite (ponds 15 and 14), halite and sylvite (pond 13), sylvite (ponds 12, 11 and 10), sylvite and carnallite (pond 9), carnallite (pond 8), carnallite and bischofite (pond 7), bischofite (ponds 6, 5 and 4), bischofite with some lithium-carnallite [LiClMgCl26H2O] (pond 3), and lithium-carnallite (ponds 2 and 1) precipitate. The brines of the last ponds (R-1 to R-3), whose volumes undergo a reduction to 1/50th of the starting volume, are treated at the processing factory to obtain lithium carbonate as the main commercial product.

As documented in Pueyo et al. (2017), the average daily temperature in the Salar de Atacama ranges between 22 °C in February and 8 °C in July, with a maximum oscillation of approximately 14 °C. Wind speed ranges daily from< 2 ms−1 in the morning to 15 ms−1 in the afternoon. Rainfall in the area of the salt flat corresponds to that of a hyperarid desert climate with an annual average, for the period 1988–2011, of 28 mm at San Pedro de Atacama, 15.1 mm at Peine and 11.6 mm at the lithium saltworks, in the last case ranging between 0 and 86 mm for individual years. The adjoining Altiplano to the east has an arid climate with an average annual rainfall of approximately 100 mm. The average relative humidity in the saltpan area, for the period 2006–2011, is 19.8% with a maximum around February (27%) and a minimum in October (15%) and with a peak in the morning when it may reach 50%. The low relative humidity and the high insolation (direct radiation of 3000 kWh m−2 yr−1) in the salt flat increase the efficiency of solar evaporation, giving rise to the precipitation and stability of very deliquescent minerals such as carnallite and bischofite. The average annual evaporation value measured in the period 1998–2011, using the salt flat interstitial brine, is approximately 2250 mm with a peak in December–January and a minimum in June–July. This cool high-altitude hyperarid climatic setting, where widespread sylvite and carnallite accumulates on the pan floor, is tectonically and climatically distinct from the hot-arid subsealevel basinwide desert seep settings envisaged for ancient marine-fed potash basins (as discussed in the upcoming third article in this series).

MOP from brine Dabuxum/Qarhan region, Qaidam Basin, China

The Qarhan saltflat/playa is now the largest hypersaline sump within the disaggregated lacustrine system that makes up the hydrology of Qaidam Basin, China (Figure 7a). The Qaidam basin sump has an area of some 6,000 km2, is mostly underlain by bedded Late Quaternary halite. Regionally, the depression is endorheic, fed by the Golmud, Qarhan and Urtom (Wutumeiren) rivers in the south and the Sugan River in the north, and today is mostly covered by a layered halite pan crust. Below, some 0 to 1.3m beneath the playa surface, is the watertable atop a permanent hypersaline groundwater brine lens (Figure 7b).


The southern Qaidam sump entrains nine perennial salt lakes: Seni, Dabiele, Xiaobiele, Daxi, Dabuxum (Dabsan Hu), Tuanjie, Xiezuo and Fubuxum north and south lakeshore (Figure 7). Dabuxum Lake, which occupies the central part of the Qarhan sump region, is the largest of the perennial lakes (184 km2; Figures 7b, 8a). Lake water depths vary seasonally from 20cm to 1m and never deeper than a metre, even when flooded. Salt contents in the various lakes range from 165 to 360 g/l, with pH ranging between 5.4 and 7.85. Today the salt plain and pans of the Qarhan playa are fed mostly by runoff from the Kunlun Mountains (Kunlun Shan), along with input from a number of saline groundwater springs concentrated along a fault trend defining an area of salt karst along the northern edge of the Dabuxum sump, especially north of Xiezuo Lake (Figure 8a).


The present climate across the Qaidam Basin is cool, arid to hyperarid (BWk), with an average yearly rainfall of 26 mm, mean annual evaporation is 3000–3200 mm, and a yearly mean temperature 2-4° C in the central basin (An et al., 2012). The various salt lakes and playas spread across the basin and contain alternating climate-dependent evaporitic sedimentary sequences. Across the basin the playa sumps are surrounded by aeolian deposits and wind-eroded landforms (yardangs). In terms of potash occurrence, the most significant region in the Qaidam Basin is the Qarhan sump or playa (aka Chaerhan Salt Lake), which occupies a landscape low in front of the outlets of the Golmud and Qarhan rivers (Figure 7a, b). Overall the Qaidam Basin displays a typical exposed lacustrine geomorphology and desert landscape, related to increasing aridification in a cool desert setting. In contrast, the surrounding elevated highlands are mostly typified by a high-alpine tundra (ET) Köppen climate.


Bedded and displacive salts began to accumulate in the Qarhan depression some 50,000 years ago (Figure 9). Today, outcropping areas of surface salt crust consist of a chaotic mixture of fine-grained halite crystals and mud, with a rugged, pitted upper surface (Schubel and Lowenstein, 1997; Duan and Hu, 2001). Vadose diagenetic features, such as dissolution pits, cavities and pendant cements, form wherever the salt crust lies above the watertable. Interbedded salts and siliciclastic sediments underlying the crust reach thicknesses of upwards of 70m (Kezao and Bowler, 1986).

Bedded potash, as carnallite, precipitates naturally in transient volumetrically-minor lake strandzone (stratoid) beds about the northeastern margin of Lake Dabuxum (Figure 8a) and as cements in Late Pleistocene bedded deposits exposed in and below nearby Lake Tuanje in what is known as the sediments of the Dadong ancient lake (Figure 8b). Ongoing freshened sheetflow from the up-dip bajada fans means the proportion of carnallite versus halite in the evaporite unit increases with distance from the Golmud Fan across, both the layered (bedded) and stratoid (cement) modes of occurrence.

At times in the past, when the watertable was lower, occasional meteoric inflow was also the driver for the brine cycling that created the karst cavities hosting the halite and carnallite cements that formed as prograde cements during cooling of the sinking brine (Figure 9). Solid bedded potash salts are not present in sufficient amounts to be quarried, and most of the exploited potash resource resides in interstitial brines that are pumped and processed using solar ponds.

Modern halite crusts in Qarhan playa contain the most concentrated brine inclusions of the sampled Quaternary halites, suggesting that today may be the most desiccated period in the Qarhan-Tuanje sump recorded over the last 50,000 years (values in the inset in figure 9 were measured on clear halite-spar void-fill crystals between chevrons). Inclusion measurements from these very early diagenetic halite show they formed syndepositionally from shallow groundwater brines and confirm the climatic record derived from adjacent primary (chevron) halite. The occurrence of carnallite-saturated brines in fluid inclusions in the diagenetic halite in the top 13 m of Qarhan playa sediments also imply a prograde diagenetic, not depositional, origin of carnallite, which locally accumulated in the same voids as the more widespread microkarst halite-spar cements.

Today, transient surficial primary carnallite rafts can accumulate along the northern strandline of Lake Dabuxum (Figure 9; Casas, 1992; Casas et al., 1992). Compositions of fluid inclusions in the older primary (chevron) halite beds hosting carnallite cements in the various Qarhan salt crusts represent preserved lake brines and indicate relatively wetter conditions throughout most of the Late Pleistocene (Yang et al., 1995). Oxygen isotope signatures of the inclusions record episodic freshening and concentration during the formation of the various salt units interlayered with lacustrine muds. Desiccation events, sufficient to allow halite beds to accumulate, occurred a number of times in the Late Quaternary: 1) in a short-lived event ≈ 50,000 ka, 2) from about 17 - 8,000 ka, and 3) from about 2,000 ka till now (Figure 9).

The greatest volume of water entering Dabuxum Lake comes from the Golmud River (Figure 7b). Cold springs, emerging from a narrow karst zone some 10 km to the north of the Dabuxum strandline and extending hundreds of km across the basin, also supply solutes to the lake. The spring water discharging along this fault-defined karst zone is chemically similar to hydrothermal CaCl2 basin-sourced waters as defined by Hardie (1990), and are interpreted as subsurface brines that have risen to the surface along deep faults to the north of the Dabuxum sump (Figure 9, 10; Spencer et al., 1990; Lowenstein and Risacher, 2009). Depths from where the Ca–Cl spring waters rise is not known. Subsurface lithologies of the Qaidam Basin in this region contains Jurassic and younger sediments and sedimentary rock columns, up to 15 km thick, which overlie Proterozoic metamorphic rocks (Wang and Coward, 1990).


Several lakes located near the northern karst zone (Donglin, North Huobusun, Xiezhuo, and Huobusun) receive sufficient Ca–Cl inflow, more than 1 part spring inflow to 40 parts river inflow, to form mixtures with chemistries of Ca equivalents > equivalents HCO3 + SO4 to create a simple potash evaporation series (this is indicated by the Ca-Cl trend line in Figure 10a). With evaporation such waters, after precipitation of calcite and gypsum, evolve into Ca–Cl-rich, HCO3–SO4-poor brines (brines numbered 5, 7-12 in figure 11a).


Dabuxum is the largest lake in the Qarhan region, with brines that are Na–Mg–K–Cl dominant, with minor Ca and SO4 (Figure 10d, 11a). These brines are interpreted by Lowenstein and Risacher (2009) to have formed from a mix of ≈40 parts river water to 1 part spring inflow, so that the equivalents of Ca ≈ equivalents HCO3 + SO4 (Figure 10b). Brines with this ratio of river to spring inflow lose most of their Ca, SO4, and HCO3 after precipitation of CaCO3 and CaSO4, and so form Na–K–Mg–Cl brines capable of precipitating carnallite and sylvite (Figure 11a). This chemistry is similar to that of ancient MgSO4-depleted marine bitterns (Figure 1)

The chemical composition of surface brines in the various lakes on the Qarhan Salt plain vary and appear to be controlled by the particular blend of river and spring inflows into the local lake/playa sump. In turn, this mix is controlled geographically by proximity to river mouths and the northern karst zone. Formation of marine-like ionic proportions in some lakes, such as Tuanje, Dabuxum and ancient Dadong Lake, engender bitterns suitable for the primary and secondary precipitation of sylvite/carnallite (Figures 10b-d; 11a). The variation in the relative proportion of sulphate to chloride in the feeder brines is a fundamental control on the suitability of the brine as a potash producer.

Figure 11b clearly illustrates sulphate to chloride variation in pore waters in the region to the immediate north and east of Dabuxum Lake. Brine wells in the low-sulphate area are drawn upon to supply feeder brines to the carnallite precipitating ponds. The hydrochemistry of this region is a clear indication of the regional variation in the sump hydrochemistry (Duan and Hu, 2001), but also underlines why it is so important to understand pore chemistry, and variations in aquifer porosity and permeability, when designing a potash plant in a Quaternary saline setting.

Compared to the MOP plant in Atacama, there as yet no lithium carbonate extraction stream to help ameliorate costs associated with carnallite processing. Lithium levels in the Qaidam brines, whilee levated, are much lower than in the Atacama brine feeds. Regionally, away from the Tuanje-Dadong area, most salt-lake and pore brines in the Qaidam flats are of the magnesium sulphate subtype and the ratio of Mg/Li can be as high as 500. With such brine compositions, the chemical precipitation approach, which is successfully applied to lithium extraction using low calcium and magnesium brines (such as those from Zabuye and Jezecaka Lake on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Andean Altiplano), would consume a large quantity of chemicals and generate a huge amount of solid waste. Accordingly, brine operations in the Qarhan region are focused on MOP production from a carnallitite slurry using extraction techniques similar to those utilised in the Southern Dead Sea. But owing to its cooler climate compared to the Dead Sea sump, the pond chemistry is subject to lower evaporation rates, higher moisture levels in the product, and a longer curing time.

Potash in the Qarhan region is produced by the Qinghai Salt Lake Potash Company, which owns the 120-square-kilometer salt lake area near Golmud (Figure 7). The company was established and listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in 1997. Currently, it specialises in the manufacture of MOP from pore brines pumped from appropriate low-sulphate regions in the lake sediments (Figure 12). The MOP factory processes a carnallite slurry pumped from pans using a slurry processing stream very similar to the dual process stream utilized in the pans of the Southern Basin in the Dead Sea and discussed in the next section.

The final potash product in the Qaidam sump runs 60-62% K2O with >2% moisture and is distributed under the brand name of “Yanqiao.” With annual production ≈3.5 million tonnes and a projected reserve ≈ 540 million tonnes, the company currently generates 97% of Chinese domestic MOP production. However, China’s annual agricultural need for potash far outpaces this level of production. The company is jointly owned by Qinghai Salt Lake Industry Group and Sinochem Corporation and is the only domestic producer of a natural MOP product.

Dead Sea Potash (MOP operation in the Southern Basin)

The Dead Sea water surface defines what is the deepest continental position (-417 m asl) on the earth’s current terrestrial surface. In the Northen Basin is our only modern example of bedded evaporitic sediments (halite and gypsum) accumulating on the subaqueous floor of a deep brine body, where water depths are hundreds of metres (Warren, 2016). This salt-encrusted depression is 80 km long and 20 km wide, has an area of 810 km2, is covered by a brine volume of 147 km3 and occupies the lowest part of a drainage basin with a catchment area of 40,650 km2 (Figure 13a). However, falling water levels in the past few decades mean the permanent water mass now only occupies the northern part of the lake, while saline anthropogenic potash pans occupy the Southern Basin, so that the current perennial “Sea” resides in the Northern Basin is now only some 50 km long (Figure 13b).


Rainfall in the region is 45 to 90 mm, evaporation around 1500 mm, and air temperatures between 11 and 21°C in winter and 18 to 40°C in summer, with a recorded maximum of 51°C. The subsiding basin is surrounded by mountain ranges to the east and west, producing an orographic rain shadow that further emphasises the aridity of the adjacent desert sump. The primary source of solutes in the perennial lake is ongoing dissolution of the halokinetic salts of the Miocene Sedom Fm (aka Usdum Fm) a marine evaporite unit that underlies the Dead Sea and approaches the surface in diapiric structures beneath the Lisan Straits and at Mt. Sedom (Garfunkel and Ben-Avraham, 1996).

A series of linked fractionation ponds have been built in the Southern Basin of the Dead Sea to further concentrate pumped Dead Sea brine to the carnallite stage (Figure 13). On the Israeli side this is done by the Dead Sea Works Ltd. (owned by ICL Fertilisers), near Mt. Sedom, and by the Arab Potash Company (APC) at Ghor al Safi on the Jordanian side. ICL is 52.3% owned by Israel Corporation Ltd.(considered as under Government control), 13.6% shares held by Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and 33.6% shares held by various institutional investors and the general public (33.64%). In contrast, PotashCorp owns 28% of APC shares, the Government of Jordan 27%, Arab Mining Company 20%, with the remainder held by several small Middle Eastern governments and a public float that trades on the Amman Stock Exchange. This gives PotashCorp control on how APC product is marketed, but it does not control how DSW product is sold.

In both the DSW and APC brine fields, muriate of potash is extracted by processing carnallitite slurries, created by sequential evaporation in a series of linked, gravity-fed fractionation ponds. The inflow brine currently pumped from the Dead Sea has a density of ≈1.24 gm/cc, while after slurry extraction the residual brine, with a density of ≈1.34 gm/cc, is pumped back into the northern Dead Sea basin water mass. The total area of the concentration pans is more than 250 km2, within the total area of 1,000 km2, which is the southern Dead Sea floor. The first stage in the evaporation process is pumping of Dead Sea water into header ponds and into the gravity-fed series of artificial fractionation pans that now cover the Southern Basin floor. With the ongoing fall of the Dead Sea water level over the past 60 years, brines from the Northern Basin must be pumped higher and over further lateral distances. This results in an ongoing need for more powerful brine pumps and an increasing problem with karst dolines related to lowered Dead Sea water levels. Saturation stages of the evolving pan brines are monitored and waters are moved from pan to pan as they are subject to the ongoing and intense levels of natural solar evaporation (Figure 13b, c; Karcz and Zak, 1987).

The artificial salt ponds of the Dead Sea are unusual in that they are designed to trap and discard most of the halite precipitate rather than harvest it. Most other artificial salt ponds around the world are shallow pans purpose-designed as ephemeral water-holding depressions that periodically dry out so that salts can be scrapped and harvested. In contrast, the Dead Sea halite ponds are purpose-designed to be permanently subaqueous and relatively deep (≈4m). Brine levels in the ponds vary by a few decimetres during the year, and lowstand levels generally increase each winter when waste brine is pumped back into the northern basin.

As the Dead Sea brine thickens, minor gypsum, then voluminous halite precipitates on the pan floor in the upstream section of the concentration series, where the halite-precipitating-brines have densities > 1.2 gm/cc (Figure 13c). As the concentrating brines approach carnallite-precipitating densities (around 1.3 gm/cc), they are allowed to flow into the carnallite precipitating ponds (Figure 13c). Individual pans have areas around 6-8 km2 and brine depths up to 2 metres. During the early halite concentration stages, a series of problematic halite reefs or mushroom polygons can build to the brine surface and so compartmentalise and entrap brines within isolated pockets enclosed by the reefs. This hinders the orderly downstream progression of increasingly saline brines into the carnallite ponds, with the associated loss of potash product.


When the plant was first designed, the expectation was that halite would accumulate on the floor of the early fractionation ponds as flat beds and crusts, beneath permanent holomictic brine layers. The expected volume of salt was deposited in the pans each year (Talbot et al., 1996), but instead of accumulating on a flat floor aggrading 15-20 cm each year, halite in some areas aggraded into a series of polygonally-linked at-surface salt reefs (aka salt mushrooms). Then, instead of each brine lake/pan being homogenized by wind shear across a single large subaqueous ponds, the salt reefs separated the larger early ponds into thousands of smaller polygonally-defined inaccessible compartments, where the isolated brines developed different compositions (Figure 14). Carnallitite slurries crystallised in inter-reef compartments from where it could not be easily harvested, so large volumes of potential potash product were locked up in the early fractionation ponds (Figure 14a, b). Attempts to drown the reefs by maintaining freshened waters in the ponds during the winters of 1984 and 1985 were only partly successful. The current approach to the salt reef problem in the early fractionation ponds is to periodically breakup and remove the halite reefs and mushrooms by a combination of dredging and occasional blasting (Figure 14c).


Unlike seawater feeds to conventional marine coastal saltworks producing halite with marine inflow salinities ≈35‰, the inflow brine pumped into the header ponds from the Dead Sea already has a salinity of more than 300‰ (Figure 15). Massive halite precipitation occurs quickly, once the brine attains a density of 1.235 (≈340‰) and reaches a maximum at a density of 1.24 (Figure 13c). Evaporation is allowed to continue in the initial halite concentrator ponds until the original water volume pumped into the pond has been halved. Concentrated halite-depleted brine is then pumped through a conveyance canal into a series of smaller evaporation ponds where carnallite, along with minor halite and gypsum precipitates (Figure 13c). Around 300–400 mm of carnallite salt slurry is allowed to accumulate in the carnallite ponds, with 84% pure carnallite and 16% sodium chloride as the average chemical composition (Figure 6a; Abu-Hamatteh and Al-Amr, 2008). The carnallite bed is harvested (pumped) from beneath the brine in slurry form and is delivered through corrosion-resistant steel pipes to the process refineries via a series of powerful pumps.

This carnallitite slurry is harvested using purpose-specific dredges floating across the crystalliser ponds. These dredges not only pump the slurry to the processing plant but also undertake the early part of the processing stream. On the dredge, the harvested slurry is crushed and size sorted, with the coarser purer crystals separated for cold crystallisation. The remainder is slurried with the residual pan brine and then further filtered aboard the floating dredges. At this stage in the processing stream the dredges pipe the treated slurries from the pans to the refining plant.


On arrival at the processing plant, raw product is then used to manufacture muriate of potash, salt, magnesium chloride, magnesium oxide, hydrochloric acid, bath salts, chlorine, caustic soda and magnesium metal (Figure 16a). Residual brine after carnallitite precipitation contain about 11-12 g/l bromide and is used for the production of bromine, before the waste brine (with a density around 1.34 gm/cc) is returned to the northern Dead Sea water mass. The entire cycle from the slurry harvesting to MOP production takes as little as five hours.

In the initial years of both DSW and APC operations, MOP was refined from the carnallite slurry via hot leaching and flotation. In the coarser-crystalline carnallitite feed, significant volumes of sylvite are now produced more economically in a cold crystallisation plant (Figure 16b). The cold crystallisation process takes place at ambient temperature and is less energy-intensive than the hot crystallisation unit. The method also consumes less water but requires a higher and more consistent grade of carnallite feed (Mansour and Takrouri, 2007; Abu-Hamatteh and Al-Amr, 2008). Both hot (thermal) and cold production methods can be utilized in either plant, depending on the quality of the slurry feed.

Sylvite is produced via cold crystallisation using the addition of water to incongruently dissolve the magnesium chloride from the crystal structure. If the carnallite slurry contains only a small amount of halite, the solid residue that remains after water flushing is mostly sylvite. As is shown in Figure 16b, if the MgCl2 concentration is at or near the triple-saturation point (the point at which the solution is saturated with carnallite, NaCl, and KCl), the KCl solubility is suppressed to the point where most of it will precipitate as sylvite. For maximum recovery, the crystallising mixture must be saturated with carnallite at its triple-saturation point. If the mixture is not saturated, for example, it contains higher levels of NaCl, then more KCl will dissolve during the water flushing of the slurry. Industrially, the cold crystallizers are usually fed with both coarse and fine carnallite streams, such that 10% carnallite remains in the slurry, this can be achieved by adjusting addition of process water (Mansour and Takrouri, 2007).

Successful cold crystallisation depends largely on a consistent high-quality carnallite feed. If a large amount of halite is present in the feed slurry, the resulting solid residue from cold crystallisation is sylvinite, not sylvite. This needs to be further refined by hot crystallisation, a more expensive extraction method based on the fact that the solubility of sylvite varies significantly with increasing temperature, while that of salt remains relatively constant (Figure 16c). As potash brine is hot leached from the sylvinite, the remaining halite is filtered off, and the brine is cooled under controlled conditions to yield sylvite.

Residual brine from the crystallisation processes then undergoes electrolysis to yield chlorine, caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and hydrogen. Chlorine is then reacted with brine filtered from the pans to produce bromine. The caustic soda is sold, and the hydrogen is used to make bromine compounds, with the excess being burnt as fuel. Bromine distilled from the brine is sold partly as elemental bromine, and partly in the form of bromine compounds produced in the bromine plant at Ramat Hovav (near Beer Sheva). This is the largest bromine plant in the world, and Israel is the main exporter of bromine to Europe. About 200,000 tons of bromine are produced each year.

Residual magnesium chloride-rich solutions created by cold crystallisation are concentrated and sold as flakes for use in the chemical industry and for de-icing (about 100,000 tons per year) and dirt road de-dusting. Part of the MgCl2 solution produced is sold to the nearby Dead Sea Periclase plant (a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals Ltd.). At this plant, the brine is decomposed thermally to give an extremely pure magnesium oxide (periclase) and hydrochloric acid. In Israel, Dead Sea Salt Work’s (DSW) production has risen to more than 2.9 Mt KCl since 2005, continuing a series of increments and reflecting an investment in expanded capacity, the streamlining of product throughput in the mill facilities, and the amelioration of the effects salt mushrooms, and increased salinity of the Dead Sea due to extended drought conditions (Figure 17).

On the other side of the truce line in Jordan, the Arab Potash Co. Ltd. (APC) output rose to 1.94 Mt KCl in 2010 The APC plant now has the capacity to produce 2.35 Mt KCl and like the DSW produces bromine from bittern end brines. Early in the pond concentration stream, APC also has to remove salt mushrooms from its ponds, a process which when completed can increase carnallite output by over 50,000 t/yr. Currently, APC is continuing with an expansion program aimed at increasing potash capacity to 2.5 Mt/yr.


MOP brines and Quaternary climate

As mentioned in the introduction, exploited Quaternary potash deposits encompass both MOP and SOP mineral associations across a range of climatic and elevation settings. This article focuses on the three main MOP producing examples, the next deals with SOP Quaternary producers (Great Salt Lake, USA and Lop Nur, China). Interestingly, both sets of Quaternary examples are nonmarine brine-fed depositional hydrologies. All currently-active economic potash plants hosted in Quaternary systems do not mine a solid product but derive their potash solar evaporation of pumped hypersaline lake brines. For MOP processing to be economic the sulphate levels in the brines held in bittern-stage concentrator pans must be low and Mg levels are typically high, so favoring the precipitation of carnallite over sylvite in all three systems.

In Salar de Atacama the low sulphate levels in the bittern stage is accomplished by artificially mixing a CaCl2 brine from further up the evaporation stream with a less saline more sulphate-enriched brine. The mixing proportions of the two brine streams aims to maximise the level of extraction/removal of CaSO4 in the halite pans prior to the precipitation of sylvite and carnallite. In the case of the pans in the Qarhan sump there is a similar but largely natural mixing of river waters with fault-fed salt-karst spring waters in a ratio of 40:1 that creates a hybrid pore brine with a low sulphate chemistry suitable for the precipitation of both natural and pan carnallite. In the case of the Dead Sea brine feed, the inflowing Dead Sea waters are naturally low in sulphate and high in magnesium. The large size of this natural brine feed systems and its homogeneous nature allows for a moderate cost of MOP manufacture estimated in Warren 2016, chapter 11 to be US$ 170/tonne. The Qarhan production cost is less ≈ US$ 110/tonne but the total reserve is less than in the brine system of the Dead Sea. In Salar de Atacama region the MOP cost is likely around US$ 250-270/tonne, but this is offset by the production of a bischofite stage brine suitable for lithium carbonate extraction.

Outside of these three main Quaternary-feed MOP producers there are a number of potash mineral occurrences in intermontane depressions in the high Andes in what is a high altitude polar tundra setting (Koeppen ET), none of which are commercial (Figure 18a). Similarly, there a number of non-commercial potash (SOP) mineral and brine occurrences in various hot arid desert regions in Australia, northern Africa and the Middle East (Koeppen BWh) that we shall look at in the next article. In the Danakhil depression there is the possibility of a future combined MOP/SOP plant (see Salty Matters April 19, 2015; April 29, 2015; May 1, 2015; May12, 2015 and Bastow et al., 2018). In the Danakhil it is important to distinguish between the current non-potash climate (BWh - Koeppen climate) over the Dallol saltflat in Ethiopia, with its nonmarine brine feed and the former now-buried marine fed potash (SOP)/halite evaporite system. The latter is the target of current exploration efforts in the basin, focused on sediments now buried 60-120m below the Dallol saltflat surface. Nowhere in the Quaternary are such dry arid desert climates (BWh) associated with commercial accumulations of potash minerals.


Climatically most commercial potash brine systems in Quaternary-age sediments are located in cooler endorheic intermontane depressions (BWk, BSk) or in the case of the Dead Sea an intermontane position in the sump of the Dead Sea, the deepest position of any continental landscape on the earth’s surface (-417 msl). The association with somewhat cooler and or less arid steppe climates implies a need for greater volumes of brine to reside in a landscape in order to facilitate the precipitation of significant volumes of potash bitterns (Figure 18a,b).

In summary, all three currently economic Quaternary MOP operations are producing by pumping nonmarine pore or saline lake brines into a series of concentrator pans. The final bittern chemistry in all three is a low-sulphate liquour, but with inherently high levels of magnesium that favors the solar pan production of carnallite over sylvite that is then processed to produce the final KCl product. The brine chemistry in all three examples imitates the ionic proportions obtained when evaporating a ancient sulphate-depleted seawater (Figure 1). The next article will discuss the complexities (the double salt problem at the potash bittern stage when concentrating a more sulphate-enriched mother brine.

References

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Danakil potash: K2SO4 across the Neogene: Implications for Danakhil potash, Part 4 of 4

John Warren - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

How to deal with K2SO4

In this the fourth blog focusing on Danakhil potash, we look at the potash geology of formerly mined Neogene deposits in Sicily and the Ukraine, then compare them and relevant processing techniques used to exploit their K2SO4 ore feeds. This information is then used to help guide a discussion of processing implications for potash extraction in the Danakhil, where kainite is the dominant widespread potash salt. As seen in the previous three blogs there are other potash mineral styles present in the Danakhil, which constitute more restricted ore fairways than the widespread bedded kainaite, these other potash styles (deep meteoiric -blog 2 of 4 and hydrothermal - blog 3 of 4), could be processed to extract MOP, but these other potash styles are also tied to high levels of MgCl2, which must be dealt with in the brine processing stream. The most effective development combination is to understand the three occurence styles , define appropriate specific brine processing strams and then combine the products in an single processing plant and then produce sulphate of potash (SOP), rather the Muriate of Potash (MOP), as SOP has a 30% price premium in current potash markets.

Kainite dominated the bedded potash ore feed in former mines in the Late Miocene (Messinian) sequence in Sicily and the Middle Miocene (Badenian) sequence in the Carpathian foredeep], Ukraine. Kainite also occurs in a number of potash deposits in the Permian of Germany and Russia. In Germany a combination of mined sylvite and kieserite is used to manufacture sulphate of potash (SOP). Interestingly, Neogene and the Permian are times when world ocean waters were enriched in MgSO4 (Lowenstein et al., 2001, 2003). In contrast, much of the Phanerozoic was typified by an ocean where MgSO4 levels were less. It is from such marine brine feeds that most of the world’s larger Phaneorzoic (SOP) potash ore deposits were precipitated (Warren, 2015). SOP is also produced from Quaternary Lake brines in China and Canada (see cryogenic salt blog; 24 Feb. 2015).

SOP in Messinian evaporites, Sicily

A number of potash mines on the island extracted kainitite from the late Miocene Solofifera Series of Sicily (Figure 1). The last of these mines closed in the mid-1990s, but portions of some are maintained and are still accessible (eg Realmonte mine). The halite-hosted potash deposits are isolated ore bodies within two generally parallel troughs, 115 km long and 5- 10 km wide, within the Caltanissetta Basin (Figure 1). They are separated by a thrust-related high 11-25 km wide and capped by the limestones of the “Calcare di Base”. Kainite is the dominant potash mineral in the mined deposits. Across the basin, ore levels constitute six layers of variable thickness, with a grade of 10%-16% K2O (pure kainite contains 18.9% K20), with very little insoluble content (0.4%-2.0%).

At the time the potash was deposited there was considerable tectonic activity in the area (Roveri et al. 2008, Manzi et al., 2011). Host sediments were deposited in piggy-back basins some 5.5 Ma atop a series of regional thrusts, so the ore layers have dips in the mines ranging up to 60° (Figure 2). Little if any of the limestone associated with the deposits was converted to dolomite, nor was the thick Messinian gypsum (upper and lower units), encasing the halite /kainitite units, converted to anhydrite, it remains as gypsum with well preserved depositional textures. However, the elevated salinities, and perhaps temperatures, required for kainite precipitation means anhydrite micronodules, observed in some ore levels, may be primary or syndepositional. A lack of carnallite, along with isotopic data, indicates that when the deposits were formed by the evaporation of the seawater, salinities did not usually proceed far past the kainite crystallization point (in contrast to Ethiopia where carnallite salinities typify the later stages of kainitite deposition)..

 

The largest Sicilian ore body was at Pasquasia, to the west of Calanisseta, covering a 24 km2 area at depths of 300-800 m (Figure 1). There were five ore beds at Pasquasia, all with highly undulating synclinal and anticlinal forms. The Number 2 bed was the thickest, averaging perhaps a 30-m thickness of 10.5% to 13.5% K2O ore. The Pasquasia Mine was last operational from 1952 to 1992.

 

Ore geology remains somewhat more accessible at the former Realmonte mine, near the town of Agrigento. There, four main depositional units (A to D from base to top) typify the evaporite geology. As at Pasquasia, kainitite was the targeted ore within a Messinian evaporite section that has total thickness of 400-600 m. As defined by Decima and Wezel, 1971, 1973; Decima, 1988, Lugli, 1999, the Realmonte mine section is made up of 4 units (Figure 2a):

- Unit A (up to 50 m thick): composed of evenly laminated grey halite with white anhydrite nodules and laminae that pass upward to grey massive halite beds.

- Unit B (total thickness ≈100 m): this potash entraining interval is dominated by massive even layers of grey halite, interbedded with light grey thin kainite laminae and minor grey centimetre-scale polyhalite spherules and laminae, along with anhydrite laminae; the upper part of the unit contains at least six light grey kainite layers up to 18 m-thick that were the targeted ore sequence. Unlike the Danakil, carnallite does not typify the upper part of this marine potash section. The targeted beds are in the low-angle dip portion of a thrust-folded remnant in a structural basin (Figures 2b, 3).

- Unit C (70-80 m thick): is made up of white halite layers 10-20 cm thick, separated by irregular dark grey mud laminae and minor light grey polyhalite and anhydrite laminae (Figure 3).

- Unit D (60 m thick): is composed of a grey anhydritic mudstone (15-20 m thick), passing up into an anhydrite laminite sequence, followed by grey halite millimetre to centimetre layers intercalated with white anhydrite laminae.


According to Lugli, 1999, units A and B are made up of cumulates of well-sorted halite plate crystals, up to a few millimeters in size. Kainite typically forms discrete laminae and sutured crystal mosaic beds, ranging from a thickness of few mm to a maximum of 2 m, intercalated and embedded within unit B (Garcia-Veigas et al., 1995). It may also occur as small isometric crystals scattered within halite mosaics. Kainite textures are dominated by packed equant-granular mosaics, which show possible pressure-dissolution features at some grain boundaries. The associated halite layers are dominantly cumulates, which show no evidence of bottom overgrowth chevrons, implying evaporite precipitation was a “rain from heaven” pelagic style that took place in a stratified permanently subaqueous brine water body, possibly with a significant water depth to the bottom of the permanent lower water mass.

Only the uppermost part of potash bearing portion of unit B shows a progressive appearance of large halite rafts along with localized dissolution pits filled by mud, suggesting an upward shallowing of the basin at that time. In many parts of the Realmonte mine spectacular vertical fissures cut through the topmost part of unit B at the boundary with unit C, suggesting desiccation and subaerial exposure at this level (Lugli et al., 1999).

The overlying unit C is composed of cumulates of halite skeletal hoppers that evolve into halite chevrons illustrating bottom growth after foundering of the initial halite rafts. Halite layers in unit C show numerous dissolution pits filled by mud and irregular truncation of the upper crystal terminations, implying precipitation from a nonstratified, relatively shallow water body. Palaeo-temperatures of the brine that precipitated these halite crystals are highly variable from 22 to 32°C (Lugli and Lowenstein, 1997) and suggest a shallow hydrologically unstable body of water, unlike units A and B.

The bromine content of halite increases from the base of unit A to the horizons containing kainite (layer B) where it obtains values of up to 150 ppm. Upwards, the bromine content decreases once more to where at the top of Unit C it drops below 13 ppm, likely indicating a marked dilution of the mother brine. The dilution is likely a consequence of recycling (dissolution and reprecipitation) of previously deposited halite either by meteoric-continental waters (based on Br content; Decima 1978), or by seawater (based on the high sulphate concentration and significant potassium and magnesium content of fluid inclusions; Garcia-Veigas et al., 1995).

As in the Danakhil succession, evaporite precipitation at Realmonte began as halite-CaSO4 interlayered succession at the bottom of a stratified perennial water body, which shallowed and increased in concentration until reaching potash kainite saturation. In Sicily, this was followed by a period of exposure and desiccation indicated by the presence of giant megapolygonal structures. Finally, seawater flooded the salt pan again, dissolving and truncating part of the previous halite layers, which was then redeposited under shallow-water conditions at the bottom of a nonstratified (holomitic) water body (Lugli et al., 1997, 1999).

Unlike Ethiopia, the Neogene kainite deposits of Sicily were deposited in a thrust “piggy-back” basin setting and not in a rift sump (Figure 2b). Mineralogically similar, very thick, rift-related, now halokinetic, halite deposits of Midddle Miocene age occur under the Red Sea’s coastal plain between Jizan, Saudi Arabia (where they outcrop) to Safaga, Egypt, with limited potash is found in some Red Sea locations at depths suitable for solution mining (Notholt 1983; Garrett, 1995). Potash-enriched marine end-liquor brines characterise Red Sea geothermal springs, implying a more sizeable potash mass may be (or once have been) present in this region. Hite and Wassef (1983) argue gamma ray peaks in two drill hole logs in this area suggest the presence of sylvite, carnallite and possibly langbeinite at depth.

K2SO4 salts in Miocene of Ukraine

Miocene salt deposits occur in the western Ukraine within two structural terranes: 1) Carpathian Foredeep (rock and potash salt) and (II) Transcarpathian trough (rock salt) (Figure 4a). These salt-bearing deposits differ in the thickness and lithology depending on the regional tectonic location (Czapowski et al., 2009). In the Ukrainian part of Carpathian Foredeep, three main tectonic zones were distinguished (Figure 4b): (I) outer zone (Bilche-Volytsya Unit), in which the Miocene molasse deposits overlie discordantly the Mesozoic platform basement at the depth of 10-200 m, and in the foredeep they subsided under the overthrust of the Sambir zone and are at depths of 1.2-2.2 km (Bukowski and Czapowski, 2009); Hryniv et al., 2007); (II) central zone (Sambir Unit), in which the Miocene deposits were overthrust some 8-12 km onto the external part of the Foredeep deposits of the external zone occur at depths of 1.0-2.2 km; (III) internal zone (Boryslav-Pokuttya Unit), where Miocene deposits were overthrust atop the Sambir Nappe zone across a distance of some 25 km (Hryniv et al., 2007).


The Carpathian Foredeep formed during the Early Miocene, located north of emerging the Outer (Flysch) Carpathians. This basin was filled with Miocene siliciclastic deposits (clays, claystones, sandstones and conglomerates) with a maximum thickness of 3 km in Poland and up to 5 km in Ukraine (Oszczypko, 2006). Two main evaporite bearing formations characterise the saline portions of the succession and were precipitated when the hydrographic connection to the Miocene ocean was severely reduced or lost (Figures 4, 5): A) Vorotyshcha Beds, dated as Late Eggenburgian and Ottnangian, some 1.1-2.3 km thick and composed of clays with sandstones, with exploitable rocksalt and potash salt interbeds. This suite is further subdivided into two subsuites: a) A lower unit, some 100-900 m thick with rock salt beds and, b) An upper unit, some 0.7-1.0 km thick, with significant potash beds, now deformed (Hryniv et al., 2007).The Stebnyk potash mine is located in this lower subset in the Boryslav-Pokuttya Nappe region, close to the Carpathian overthrust); B) Tyras Beds of Badenian age reach thicknesses of 300-800 m in the Sambir and Bilche-Volytysa units and are dominated by salt breccias and contain both rock and potash salts. Thicknesses in the Bilche-Volytsya Unit range from 20-70 m and are made up of a combination of claystones, sandstones, carbonates, sulphates and rock salts with little or no potash.


Hence, potash salts of the Carpathian Foredeep are related either to the Vorotyshcha Beds located in the Boryslav–Pokuttya zone, or to the Tyras Beds (Badenian) in the Sambir zone (Figure 5). These associations range across different ages, but have many similar features, such as large number of potash lenses in the section, mostly in folded-thrust setting, and owing to their likely Neogene-marine mother brine contain many sulphate salts, along with a high clay content. Accordingly, the main potash ore salts are kainite, langbeinite and kainite–langbeinite mixtures. Hryniv et al. (2007) note more than 20 salt minerals in the Miocene potash levels and in their weathering products. Bromine contents in halites of the Carpathian Foredeep for deposits without potash salts range from 10 to 100 ppm (on average 56 ppm); in halite from salt breccias with potash salts range from 30 to 230 ppm (average 120 ppm); and in halite from potash beds ranges from 70 to 300 ppm (average 170 ppm). In the ore minerals from the main potash deposits, bromine content ranges are: a) in kainite 800–2300 ppm; b) in sylvite 1410–2660 ppm; and c) in carnallite 1520–2450 ppm. This is consistent with kainite being a somewhat less saline precipitate than carnallite/sylvite (Figure 6).


The brines of Vorotyshcha and Tyras salt-forming basins (based on data from brine inclusions in an investigation of sedimentary halite, listed by Hyrniv et al. (2007), are consistent with mother brines of the Na–K–Mg–Cl–SO4 (MgSO4-rich) chemical type (consistent with a Neogene marine source). Inclusion analysis indicates the temperature of halite formation in the Miocene basin brines in Forecarpathian region was around 25°C. During the potash (Kainite) stages it is likely these solutions became perennially stratified and heliothermal so that the bottom brines could be heated to 40-60°C, more than double the temperature of the brine surface layer (see Warren, 2015 for a discussion of the physical chemistry and the various brine stratification styles). During later burial and catagenesis the temperatures preserved in recrystallised halites are as high as 70°C with a clear regional tectonic distribution (Hryniv et al. (2007).

Maximum potash salt production was achieved under Soviet supervision in the 1960s, when the Stebnyk and Kalush mines delivered 150 x 106 tonnes of K2O and the “New” Stebnyk salt-works some 250 x 106 tonnes as K2SO4 per year.


Stebnyk potash (Figure 7a)

The potash salt deposit in the Stebnyk ore field occurs within the Miocene (Eggenburgian) Vorotyshcha Beds (Figures 4, 5). Salt-bearing deposits in the Stebnyk area were traditionally attributed to two main rock complexes (Lower and Upper Vorotyshcha Beds) separated by terrigenous (sandstones and conglomerates) Zahirsk Beds (Petryczenko et al., 1994). More recent work indicates that the Zahirsk Beds belonged to a olistostrome horizon (a submarine slump, interrupting evaporite deposition) and there are no valid arguments for subdividing the Vorotyshcha Beds into two subunits (Hryniv et al., 2007).

There are multiple salt-bearing series in the Stebnyk deposit (Figure 4b) and their total thickness ranges up to 2,000 m in responses to intensive fold thickening and overthrusting of the Carpathians foredeep. Intervals with more fluid salt mineralogies were compressed and squeezed into the centers of synclinal folds, to form a number of elongate lens-shape ore bodies (Figure 4b). These bodies are often several hundreds meters wide and in mineable zones occur at the depth of 80-650 m, typically at 100-360 m.

The lower part of the Vorotyshcha Suite (Beds) in the Stebnyk Mine area is composed of a salt-bearing breccia, with sylvinite or carnallitite interclayers typically in its upper parts, as well as numerous blocks of folded marly clays (Bukowski and Czapowski, 2009). Above this is the potash-bearing ore series , some 10-125 m thick and, composed of beds of kainite, langbeinite and lagbeinite-kainite with local sylvinite and kieserite (Hryniv et al., 2007). The potash interval is overlain by a rock salt complex some 60 m thick (Koriń, 1994).

The Stebnyk plant is now abandoned and in disrepair. In 1983 there was a major environmental disaster (explosion) at a nearby chemical plant (in the ammonia manufacture section), which was supplied chemical feedstock by the mine. No lives were lost, but damage at the plant, tied to the explosion, released some 4.6 million cubic metres of thick brine from an earthen storage dam into the nearby Dniester River. At the time this river was probably the least environmentally damaged by industrial operations under Soviet administration. The spill disrupted water supplies to millions of people along the river, killed hundreds of tons of fish, destroyed river vegetation and deposited a million tons of mineral salts on the bottom of a 30-mile-long reservoir on the Dniester. Stebnik is located in the Ukrainian province of Lvov. Staff members at the United States Embassy at the time seized on the name to dub the incident ‘’Lvov Canal,’’ after the Love Canal contamination in the United States.

Kalush potash salt geology (Figure 7b)

Thickness of Miocene (Badenian) deposits near the Kalush Mine is around 1 km (Figures 4a). Two local salt units (beds) are distinguished within the Tyras Beds: the Kalush and Holyn suites, which constitute the nucleus of Miocene deposits of Sambir Unit (Figure 5). Beds have been overthrust and folded onto the Mesozoic and Middle to Upper Miocene molasse sediments of the outer (Bilche-Volytsya) tectonic unit (Figure 4b). The Kalush Beds are 50-170 m thick, mostly clays, with sandstone and mudstone intercalations,. In contrast the Holyn beds are more saline and dominated by clayey rock salts (30-60% of clay), salty clays and claystones (Koriń, 1994). Repeated interbeds and concentrations of potash salts up to several meters thick within the Holyn beds define a number of separate potash salt fields in the Kalush area (Figures 4b, 5). Such salt seams are dominated by several MgSO4-enriched mineralogies: kainite, langbeinite-kainite, langbeinite, sylvinite and less much uncommon carnallite and polyhalite. These polymineralogic sulphate ore mineral assemblages are co-associated with anhydrite, kieserite and various carbonates. The potash ore fields typically occur in tectonic troughs within larger synclines, usually at depths of 100-150 m, to a maximum of 800 m.

Conventional processing streams for manufacture of SOP and MOP

To date the main natural sulphate salts that have been successfully processed to manufacture sulphate of potash (SOP) are;

  • Kainite (KCl.MgSO4.3H2O) (as in Sicily - potash mines are no longer active)
  • Kieserite (MgSO4.H2O) (as in Zechstein, Germany - some potash mines active)
  • Langbeinite (K2SO4.2MgSO4) (as in Carlsbad, New Mexico - active potash mine)
  • Polymineralic sulphate ores (as in the Stebnyk and Kalush ores, Ukraine - these potash mines are no longer active)
  • All the processing approaches deal with a mixed sulphate salt or complex sulphate brine feed and involve conversion to form an intermediate doublesalt product, usually schoenite (or leonite at elevated temperatures) or glaserite. This intermediate is then water-leached to obtain SOP.

    For example, with a kainite feed, the process involves the following reactions:

    2KCl.MgSO4.3H2O --> K2SO4.MgSO4.6H2O + MgCl2

    followed by water-leaching of the schoenite intermediate

    K2SO4.MgSO4.6H2O --> K2SO4 + MgSO4 + 6H2O


    In Sicily in the 1960s and 70s, the Italian miners utilized such a solid kainitite ore feed, from conventional underground mining and leaching approaches. The various Italian mines were heavily government subsidized and in terms of a free-standing operation most were never truly profitable. The main kainitite processing technique used in Sicily, is similar in many ways to that used to create SOP from winter-precipitated cryogenic salt slurries in pans that were purpose-constructed in the North Arm area of in Great Salt Lake, Utah (Table 1; see Warren, 2015 for details on Great Salt Lake operations). The Italian extraction method required crushing and flotation to create a fine-sized kainite ore feed with less than 5% NaCl. This product was then leached at temperatures greater than 90°C with an epsomite brine and converted into a langbeinite slurry, a portion which was then reacted with a schoenite brine to precipitate potassium chloride and epsomite solids, which were then separated from each other and from the epsomite brine. A portion of the potassium chloride was then reacted with magnesium sulphate in the presence of a sulphate brine to create schoenite and a schoenite brine. This schoenite brine was recycled and the remaining potassium chloride reacted with the schoenite in the presence of water, to obtain potassium sulphate and a sulphate brine.

    The processing stream in the Ukraine was similar for the various Carpathian ore feeds, which “out-of-mine-face” typically contained around 9% potassium and 15% clay and so were a less pure input to the processing stream, compared to the typical mine face product in Sicily. Like Sicily, schoenite was the main intermediate salt. Ore was leached with a hot synthetic kainite solution in a dissolution chamber. The langbeinite, polyhalite and halite remained undissolved in the chamber. Salts and clay were then moved into a Dorr-Oliver settler where the clays were allowed to settle and were then moved to a washer and discarded. The remaining solution was crystallized at the proper cation and anion proportions to produce crystalline schoenite. To avoid precipitation of potassium chloride and sodium chloride, a saturated solution of potassium and magnesium sulfate was added to the Dorr-Oliver settler. The resulting slurry of schoenite was filtered and crystals were leached with water to produce K2SO4 crystals, which were centrifuged and recycled and a liquor of potassium and magnesium sulfates obtained. The liquid phase from the filter was recycled and added to the schoenite liquor from obtaoned by vacuum crystallization. Part of the schoenite liquor was evaporated to produce crystalline sodium sulfate, while the magnesium chloride liquid end product was discarded. The slurry from the evaporation unit was recycled as “synthetic kainite.” This process stream permitted the use of the relatively low quality Carpathian ore and produced several commercially valuable products including potassium sulfate, potassium-magnesium sulfate, potassium chloride, sodium sulfate and magnesium chloride liquors. Being a Soviet era production site, the economics of the processing was not necessarily the main consideration. Rather, it was the agricultural utility of the product that was paramount to the Soviet state.

    Can Danakhil potash be economically mined?

    For any potash deposit (MOP or SOP) there are three approaches that are used today to economically extract ore (Warren 2015): 1) Conventional underground mining. 2) Processing of lake brines 3) Solution mining and surface processing of brines. Historically, method 1 and 2 have been successfully conducted in the Danakhil Depression, although method 1) was terminated in the Dallol area by a mine flood.

    Conventional mining

    To achieve a successful conventional underground MOP potash mine any where in the world, ideally requires (Warren, 2015): 1) A low dipping, laterally continuous and consistently predictable quality ore target, not subject to substantial changes in bed dip or continuity. 2) An ore grade of 14% K2O or higher, and bed thickness of more than 1.2 m. 3) Around 8-m of impervious salt in the mine back or roof, although some potash mines, such as the Boulby mine in the UK are working with < 2 meters of salt in the back (but there the extraction is automated and the access roads approach the target ore zone from below). 4) An initial access shaft that is vertical and typically dug using ground freezing techniques to prevent unwanted water entry during excavation. 5) A typical ore depth in the range 500-1100 metres. Shallower mines are subject to unpredictable water entry/flooding and catastrophic roof collapse, as in the Cis-Urals region (see Solikamsk blog). Mines deeper than 1000-1100 metres are at the limit of conventional mining and the salt surround is subject to substantial creep and possible explosive pressure release outbursts (as in some potash mines in the former East Germany). 6) At-surface and in-mine conditions not subject to damage by earthquakes, water floods or volcanism.

    During the feasibilty phase of the Parsons Mining Project it became evident that the halite material overlying the Sylvinite Member was porous and that there was no adequate hydrologic protection layer above the Sylvinite Member. In my mind, this is further evidence of the hydrologic access needed to convert carnallite to sylvite along the bajada front (see previous blog). In any event the absence of a hydrologic protection layer above the Sylvinite Member means that conventional underground mining is not feasible for this type of potash. In addition, given the tectonic instability of the Danakhil Depression it is likely that no underground conventional mine is feasible in the hydrologically, seismically and hydrothermally active setting, which is the Danakhil depression, even if planning to exploit the deeper widespread kainitite beds (>350-450m)

    Some explorers in the Danakhil depression, especially on the Eritrean side are proposing to use surface or open-pit mining (quarrying) approaches to reach and extract/processing shallow ore salts. For this approach to be successful requires the shallow potash targets to be above regional groundwater level. Depths to the different ore targets on the Ethiopian side of the depression range between 45m and 600m and almost all lie below the regional water. Also, to access the mineralised material a large volume of variably water-saturated overburden would need to be removed. Even if areas with ore levels above the water table do exist on the Ethiopian side, the whole of the Danakhil sump is subject to periodic runoff and sheetflooding, sourced in the western highlands. Open pit areas would be regularly flooded during the lifetime of the pit, resulting in a need for extensive dewatering. For these reasons, and the possibility of earthquake damage, open pit mining is likely not feasible.

    Can the Danakhil potash be solution mined?

    To achieve this, brines extracted from different mineralogical levels and ore types will need to be individually targeted and kept as separate feeds into dedicated at-surface processing streams. On the Dallol surface, there are numerous sites that are suitable for pan construction, the climate is suitable for natural solar concentration as the region is typically dry, flat and hyperarid. If the potash zones in the Dallol depression are to be economically exploited via solution mining it will likely first require an understanding of the geometries of the 3 different forms of potash, namely; 1) Bedded kainitite-carnallitite (widespread in the depression), 2) Diagenetic sylvite via incongruent dissolution (focused by deep meteoric mixing and the bajada chemical interface along the western margin. 3) Hydrothermal potash (largely found in the vicinity of Dallol mound). Next, in order to have known-chemistry feedstocks into a SOP chemical plant, it will require the appropriate application of extraction/solution mining chemistries for each of these deposit styles. This would involve the construction of dedicated brine fields and the pumping of shallow Dallol brines (mostly from <200-250m below the surface) into a series of mineralogically-separated at-surface solar concentrator pans. 

    There are some subsurface aspects that need to be considered and controlled  in a solution mining approach in the Danakhil. The first is the possibility of uncontrolled solution cavity stoping (for example where a solution cavity blanket layer is lost due to cavity intersection with an unexpected zone of high permeability). If cavity shape is not closely monitored (for example by regular downhole sonar scans) and controlled, this could ultimately lead to the collapse of the land surface atop regions of shallow evaporites (<150-200 below the surface). As we saw in blog 3, doline collapse is a natural process in the Dallol Mound region, as it is any region of shallow soluble evaporites in contact with undersaturated pore waters. Ongoing solution via interaction with hydrothermal waters has created the colorful brine springs that attract tourists to the Dallol Mound region. But a operator does not want new dolines to daylight in their brine field, as environmental advocates would quickly lay blame at the feet of the brinefield operator. For this reason, the region in the vicinity of the Dallol Mount (eg the “Crescent deposit”) should probably be avoided.

    Most modern brinefield operators prefer a slowly-dissolving targeted salt bed that is at least 400-500m below the land surface (Warren, 2015). This broadens and lessens the intensity of the cone of ground collapse above the extraction zone and so lessens the possibility of catastrophic surface collapse. Use of a diesel rather than air blanket during cavity operation is also preferred because of potential porosity intersections at the base of the Upper Rock Salt (URF) contact (see blog 2 in the Danakhil blogs) Appropriate deeper potash beds in the Danakhil are laterally continuous beds of kainitite with lesser carnallitite. Drilling to date has identified little sylvite or bischofite in these widespread layers. This simplifies the mineral input chemistry in terms of a kainite target further out in the saltflat with a sylvite or sylvite bischofite operation closer toward the western margin, but there are no currently active solution mines solely targeting a kainite ore anywhere in the world.

    This leads to another consideration with a solution mining approach in the Danakhil depression, and that is that there are no existing brine technologies that can deal economically with high concurrent levels of magnesium and possibly-elevated sulphate levels in a recovered brine feed. The third consideration is reliably predicting the occurrence of, and avoiding, any metre- to decametre-scale brine-filled cavities that the drilling has shown are not uncommon at the sylvinite-bischofite-carnallite level in the Dallol stratigraphy along the Bajada chemistry zone. Intersecting and slowly dewatering such large brine cavities may not lead to at-surface ground collapse, but if not identified could create unexpected variations in the ionic proportions of brine feeds into the solar concentrators (for example drilling has identified subsurface regions dominated by bischofite, which is one of the most soluble bittern salts in the Danakhil depression - see Ercospan 2010, 2011 for drill result summaries).

    And so?

    So, at this stage, there are encouraging possibilities for economic recovery of both MOP and SOP from solution brines pumped to chemistry-specific solar pans in the Danakhil. Processing chemistry will require further site-specific studies to see which of the current known methods or their modification is economically feasible for SOP and perhaps combined SOP and MOP manufacture in the hyperarid climate of the Danakhil, as is being currently done by Allana Potash. It is also possible that a new processing stream chemistry could to be developed for the Dallol brines, in order to deal with very high concurrent levels of MgCl2 (widespread bischofite beds), or develop new or modify existing processing streams that target kainitite at depth. Similar K2SO4 brine processing chemistries have been applied in pans of the margins of the Great Salt Lake. But there salt pan processing was in part seasonally cryogenic, something that the Dallol climate certainly is not, so it is likely modified or new approaches to year-round pan management will be required.

    Any future potash operation in the Danakil will have to compete in product pricing with well established, high-volume low cost producers in Canada, Belarus and Russia (Figure 8). Today, establishing a new conventional underground potash mine is associated with setup costs well in excess of a billion dollars (US$). The costs are high as the entry shaft to a conventional underground mine must be completed without water entry and is usually done via ground freezing. This is the approach currently underway at BHP’s MOP Jansen Mine in Saskatchewan, Canada. Because of the very high costs involved in underground entry construction, and the well established nature of the competition, the proved amount of ore for a conventional mine should be sufficient for at least 20 years of production (subject to a given mill size, mill recovery rate for a given ore depth and the density and origin of salt “horses”). Kogel et al. (2006) states any potash plant or mill should be at capable of least 300,000 t K2O per annum in order to compete with a number of established plants with nameplate capacity in excess of 1 Mt.

    In contrast, the shallow nature of a Danakhil potash source means cheaper access costs, while a solution well approach makes for much cheaper and shorter approach times for brine/ore extraction, providing suitable economic brine processing streams are available (Figure 8). Potash is a mine product where transport to market is a very considerable cost proportion in terms of an operation's profitability. The location of the Danakhil gives it a low-cost transport advantage as a future supplier to the ever-growing agricultural markets of Africa, India and perhaps China. And finally, a potassium sulphate product has a 30% cost premium over a muriate of potash (KCl) product.

    References

    Bukowski, K., and G. Czapowski, 2009, Salt geology and mining traditions: Kalush and Stebnyk mines (Fore-Carpathian region, Ukraine): Geoturystyka, v. 3, p. 27-34.

    Czapowski, G., K. Bukowski, and K. Poborska-Młynarska, 2009, Miocene rock and potash salts of West Ukraine. y): Field geological-mining seminar of the Polish Salt Mining Society. Geologia (Przegląd Solny 2009), Wyd. AGH, Kraków, 35, 3: 479-490. (In Polish, English summary).

    Decima, A., J. A. McKenzie, and B. C. Schreiber, 1988, The origin of "evaporative" limestones: An Example from the Messinian of Sicily: Journal of Sedimentary Petrology, v. 58, p. 256-272.

    Decima, A., and F. Wezel, 1973, Late Miocene evaporites of the central Sicilian Basin; Italy: Initial reports of the Deep Sea Drilling Project, v. 13, p. 1234-1240.

    Decima, A., and F. C. Wezel, 1971, Osservazioni sulle evaporiti messiniane della Sicilia centromeridionale: Rivista Mineraria Siciliana, v. 130–132, p. 172–187.

    Garcia-Veigas, J., F. Orti, L. Rosell, C. Ayora, R. J. M., and S. Lugli, 1995, The Messinian salt of the Mediterranean: geochemical study of the salt from the central Sicily Basin and comparison with the Lorca Basin (Spain): Bulletin de la Societe Geologique de France, v. 166, p. 699-710.

    Garrett, D. E., 1995, Potash: Deposits, processing, properties and uses: Berlin, Springer, 752 p.

    Hite, R. J., and A. S. Wassef, 1983, Potential Potash Deposits in the Gulf of Suez, Egypt: Ann. Geol. Survey Egypt, v. 13, p. 39-54.

    Hryniv, S. P., B. V. Dolishniy, O. V. Khmelevska, A. V. Poberezhskyy, and S. V. Vovnyuk, 2007, Evaporites of Ukraine: a review: Geological Society, London, Special Publications, v. 285, p. 309-334.

    Koriń, S. S., 1994, Geological outline of Miocene salt-bearing formations of the Ukrainian fore-Carpathian area (In Polish, English summary): Przegląd Geologiczny, v. 42, p. 744-747.

    Lowenstein, T. K., L. A. Hardie, M. N. Timofeeff, and R. V. Demicco, 2003, Secular variation in seawater chemistry and the origin of calcium chloride basinal brines: Geology, v. 31, p. 857-860.

    Lowenstein, T. K., M. N. Timofeeff, S. T. Brennan, H. L. A., and R. V. Demicco, 2001, Oscillations in Phanerozoic seawater chemistry: Evidence from fluid inclusions: Science, v. 294, p. 1086-1088.

    Lugli, S., 1999, Geology of the Realmonte salt deposit, a desiccated Messinian Basin (Agrigento, Sicily): Memorie della Societá Geologica Italiana, v. 54, p. 75-81.

    Lugli, S., and T. K. Lowenstein, 1997, Paleotemperatures preserved in fluid inclusions in Messinian halite, Realmonte Mine (Agrigento, Italy): Neogene Mediterranean Paleoceanography, 28–30 September 1997, Erice. Abstract volume, 44–45.

    Lugli, S., B. C. Schreiber, and B. Triberti, 1999, Giant polygons in the Realmonte mine (Agrigento, Sicily): Evidence for the desiccation of a Messinian halite basin: Journal of Sedimentary Research Section A-Sedimentary Petrology & Processes, v. 69, p. 764-771.

    Manzi, V., S. Lugli, M. Roveri, B. C. Schreiber, and R. Gennari, 2011, The Messinian "Calcare di Base" (Sicily, Italy) revisited: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 123, p. 347-370.

    Notholt, A. J. G., 1983, Potash in Developing Countries, in R. M. McKercher, ed., Potash '83; Potash technology; mining, processing, maintenance, transportation, occupational health and safety, environment, p. 29-40.

    Oszczypko, N., P. Krzywiec, I. Popadyuk, and T. Peryt, 2006, Carpathian Foredeep Basin (Poland and Ukraine): Its Sedimentary, Structural, and Geodynamic Evolution, in J. Golonka, and F. J. Picha, eds., The Carpathians and their foreland: Geology and hydrocarbon resources, The American Association of Petroleum Geologists Memoir, v. 84, p. 293-350.

    Petryczenko, O. I., G. M. Panow, T. M. Peryt, B. I. Srebrodolski, A. W. Pobereżski, and K. W.M., 1994, Outline of geology of the Miocene evaporite formations of the Ukrainian part of the Carpathian Foredeep (In Polish, English summary): Przegląd Geologiczny, v. 42, p. 734-737.

    Roveri, M., S. Lugli, V. Manzi, and B. C. Schreiber, 2008, The Messinian Sicilian stratigraphy revisited: new insights for the Messinian salinity crisis: Terra Nova, v. 20, p. 483-488.

    Warren, J. K., 2015, Evaporites: A compendium (ISBN 978-3-319-13511-3) Released August 2015: Berlin, Springer, 1600 p.

    Danakhil Potash, Ethiopia: Beds of Kainite/Carnallite, Part 2 of 4

    John Warren - Wednesday, April 29, 2015

    The modern Dallol saltflat described in the previous blog defines the upper part of more than 970 metres of halite-dominated Quaternary evaporites that have accumulated beneath the present salt pan of the Northern Danakhil. The total sequence is made up of interbeds of halite, gypsum, anhydrite and shale with a potash succession separating two thick sequences of halite (Figure 1; Holwerda and Hutchison, 1968; Augustithis, 1980). At depths of more than 35-40 meters, and deepening to the east, this km-thick subcropping Quaternary halite-dominated fill contains one, and perhaps two or more, potash beds. For a more detailed description of the upper part of the fill the reader is referred to the previous blog and Chapter 11 in Warren, 2015.


    Bedded Pleistocene evaporites may underlie the entire Danakil depression, but younger lava flows of the Aden Volcanic Series and alluvium washed in from the surrounding bajada obscure much of the older Pleistocene sedimentary series across much of the southern part of the depression beyond Lake Assale). Potash exploration drilling and core recovery is concentrated in the accessible parts of the northern Danakhil rift, where the saltflat facilitates vehicle access, compared with the lava-covered regions south of Lake Assale. The most recent volcanic activity affecting the known potash region was the emplacement of the Dallol Mound, which has driven local uplift of the otherwise subsurface potash section to where it approaches the surface in the immediate vicinity of the mound (Figure 2a).

    Away from the Dallol volcanic mound the upper potash bed beneath the saltflat lies at a depth of 38-190 metres. A lower inferred potash bed likely occurs at depth along the eastern end of the saltflat, but this second bed is inferred from high API kicks in gamma logs run in deeper wells, no solid salt was recovered (Holwerda and Hutchison, 1968). The upper proven potash bed is now the target zone for a number of minerals companies currently exploring for potash in the region. Regionally, both potash units dip east, with the deepest indicators of the two units encountered by the drill in a single well on the eastern side of the saltflat at depths of 683 and 930 m, respectively (Figure 2: Holwerda and Hutchison, 1968). The likely Quaternary age of the potash units, the marine brine source, explains the high magnesium content of the potash bittern salts, as modern seawater contains high levels of Mg and SO4.


    My study of core that intersected the potash interval and that is sandwiched between the Lower and Upper Halite units shows both the lower and the upper halite units retain pristine sedimentary textures, with features and vertical successions that indicate distinct hydrologies during their deposition (Figure 3). There is no textural evidence of halokinetic recrystallization in halites any of the studied cores and published seismic also indicates consistent dips in the evaporites . Most of the textures in the cored potash interval indicate a subaqueous density-stratified environment, with brine reworking of the upper part of primary kainitite, carnallitite units. Perennial subaqueous, density-stratified brines also typify the hydrology of the Lower Halite unit, albeit with somewhat lower salinities tan those precipitating the bitterns (Figure 3). The brine that precipitating the Upper Rocksalt Formation was shallower and more ephemeral. The following paragraphs summarise my core-based observations and interpretations that led to this interpretation of the evolving brine hydrology.

    The Lower Rocksalt Formation (LRF) is dominated by bottom-growth-aligned subaqueous halite textures and lack of siliciclastic detritus, unlike the Upper Rocksalt Formation (Figure 3). Halite textures in the LRF lack porosity and dominated by coarsely crystalline beds made up of cm-scale NaCl-CaSO4 couplets dominated by upward-pointing halite chevrons and mantled by thin CaSO4 layers (Figure 3). This meromictic-holomictic textural association passes up into the upper part of the LRF with cm-scale proportions alternating of less-saline to more-saline episodes of evaporite precipitation decreasing, indicating an “on-average” increasingly shallow subaqueous depositional setting as one approaches the base of the kainitite unit. The combination of bottom-nucleated and cumulate textures in the LRF are near identical to those in the halites in the kainitite interval in the Messinian of Sicily (see later). 

    The laminated Kainitite Member is also a subaqueous unit with layered cumulate textures (Figure 3), it was likely deposited on a pelagic bottom beneath a shallow body of marine-fed bittern waters, which never reached carnallite saturation. Above this are the variably present carnallitic Intermediate and Sylvinitite members and the overlying Halite marker beds in turn overlain by the Upper Halite unit. All retain pristine textures indicating mostly subaqueous deposition, soon followed by varying exposure and reaction with shallow phreatic brines moving across the top of Kainitite member. This shallow phreatic brine crossflow drove syndepositional mineral alteration and collapse in the upper part of the kainitite and carnallitite units.


    The potash-entraining interval between the URF and LRF is called the Houston Formation has been drilled and cored extensively by explorers in the basin, showing it is consistently between 15 and 40 metres thick (Figure 1). Stratigraphically, it consists of lower Kainitite Member (4-14m thick) atop and in depositional continuity with the LRF (more than 500m thick) (Figure 3). The Kainitite Member is fine-grained, laminated, locally wavy-bedded, containing up to 50% kainite cumulates in a cumulate (non-chevron) halite background, along with small amounts of a white mineral that is likely epsomite. It is overlain by what older literature describes as the “Carnallitite Intermediate unit” (3-25 m thick). More recent potash exploration drilling has shown all the members that constitute the Intermediate Carnallitite Member is not always present within the Dallol depression. Mineralogically is at best considered as variably developed (Figure 3). Its lower part is a layered to laminated carnallite-halite mixture with some kieserite, anhydrite and epsomite. This can pass up or laterally into kainitite with sylvite. Above the Intermediate Member is the 0-10m thick Sylvinite Member containing 20-30% sylvite, along with polyhalite and anhydrite (up to 10%). Typically the sylvinite member shows primary layering disturbed by varying intensities of slumping and dissolution. Often the upper part of a carnallite unit (where present) also shows similar evidence of dissolution and reprecipitation.

    Cores through the sylvinite member and parts of the upper carnallitite member sample a range of recrystallization/flow/slump textures, rather than primary horizontal-laminar textures. Beneath the sylvinite member, the variably-present upper carnallitite member contains a varied suite of non-commercial potash minerals that in addition to carnallite include, kieserite, kainite (up to 10% by volume) and polyhalite, along with minor amounts of sylvite. Minor anhydrite is common, while rinneite may occur locally, along with rust-red iron staining. Sylvite is more abundant near the top of the carnallitite member and its proportion decreases downward, perhaps reflecting its groundwater origin. Kainite is the reverse and its proportion increases downward. The sylvinite member and the carnallitite member also show an inverse thickness relationship. Bedding in the carnallitite member is commonly contorted with folded and brecciated horizons interpreted as slumps. The base of the carnallitite member is defined as the level where carnallite forms isolated patches in the kainite before disappearing entirely.

    Drilling in the past few years has clearly show that in some parts of the evaporite unit, located nearer to the western side of the basin, the lower and upper carnallite units are separated by thick bischoftite intervals (Figures 2b, 3). The bischofite is layered at a mm-cm scale and with no obvious breaks related to freshening and exposure, implying it too was deposited in a perennially subaqueous or phreatic cavity setting (Pedley et al., in press).

    The potash/bischofite interval passes up into a slumped and disturbed halite-dominated unit that is known as the “Marker Beds” because of the co-associated presence of clay lamina and bedded halite, along with traces of potash minerals (Figure 3). This unit then passes up into the massive Upper Rock Salt unit across an unconformity at the top of the halite “Marker Beds.” Bedded, and at times finely laminated cumulate textures in the various magnesian bittern units, are used by many to argue that the kainitite and the lower carnallitite members are primary or syndepositional precipitates.

    Three types of potash-barren zones can occur within it and are possibly related to the effects of groundwaters and solution cavity cements within the carnallitite unit, perhaps precipitated before the deposition of the overlying marker halites. Barren zones in the Sylvinite member are regions where: a) the entire sylvinite bed is replaced by a relatively pure stratiform halite, along with dispersed nodules of anhydrite, b) zones up to 23 m thick and composed of pure crystalline halite (karst-fill cements?) that occur patchily within the sylvinite bed and, c) potash-depleted zones defined by coarsely crystalline halite instead of sylvinite. Bedding plane spacing and layering and some slumping styles in the halite in styles a and b are similar to that in the sylvite bed. Contact with throughflushing freshened nearsurface and at-surface waters perhaps created most of the barren zones in the sylvinite. Fluid crossflow may also have formed or reprecipitated sylvite of the upper member, via selective surface or nearsurface leaching of MgCl2 from its carnallite precursor (Holwerda and Hutchison, 1968; Warren 2015). Due to the secondary origin of much of the sylvite in the Sylvinite member, the proportion of sylvite decreases as the proportion of carnallite increases, along with secondary kieserite, polyhalite and kainite.

    The kainite member is texturally distinctive and is composed of nearly pure, fine-grained, dense, relatively hard, amber-coloured kainite with ≈ 25% admixed halite (Figure 3). Core study shows the lamina style remained flat-laminar (that is, subaqueous density-stratified with periodic bottom freshening) as the mineralogy passes from the LRF up into the flat-laminated kainitite member (Figure 4: Warren, 2015; Pedley et al., in press). Throughout, the kainitite unit shows a cm-mm scale layering, with no evidence of microkarsting or any exposure of the kainitite depositional surface. That is, the Kainitite Member is a primary depositional unit, like the underlying halite and still retains pristine evidence of its dominantly subaqueous depositional hydrology. The decreased proportion of anhydrite in the Kainitite Member, compared to the underlying LRF, indicates a system that on-average was more saline than the brines that deposited the underlying halite. The preponderance of MgSO4 salts means the Kainitite unit like the underlying LRF formed by the evaporation of seep-supplied seawater.

    This situation differs from the present “closed basin” hydrology of the Danakil Depression which typifies the URF and the overlying Holocene succession (Hardie, 1990; Warren, 2015).

    Units atop the primary laminated textures of the kainitite, lower carnallitite and bischofite members (where present) tend to show various early-diagenetic secondary textures (Figure 4). It seems much of the sylvinite and upper carnallitite member deposition was in shallow subsurface or at-surface brine ponds subject to groundwater crossflows and floor collapse, possibly aided by seismically-induced pulses of brine crossflow. In addition, this perennial density-stratified brine hydrology was at times of holomixis subject to brine reflux and the brine-displacement backreactions that typify all evaporite deposition, past and present (Warren 2015).

    The observation of early ionic mobility in potash zone brines in the Danakil depositional system is also not unusual in any modern or ancient potash deposit. It should not be considered necessarily detrimental to the possibility of an extensive economically exploitable potash zone being present in the Danakil Depression. Interestingly, all the world’s exploited potash deposits, including those in the Devonian of Canada and Belarus, the Perm of the Urals and the potash bed of west Texas, show evidence of syndepositional and shallow burial reworking of potash (Warren, 2015). Early potassium remobilization has created the ore distributions in these and other mined potash depositsTextures and mineralogies in the Upper Rocksalt Formation (URF) define a separate hydrological association to the marine-fed LRF and Houston Formation (Table 4). Compared to the LRF, the URF has much higher levels of depositional porosity, lacks high levels of CaSO4, and has high levels of detrital siliciclastics. This is especially so in its upper part, which shows textural evidence of periodic and ongoing clastic-rich sheetflooding and freshening (Figure 4). It was deposited in a hydrology that evolved up section to become very similar to that active on today’s halite pan surface. The URF contains no evidence of salinities or textures associated with a potash bittern event and is probably not a viable exploration target for solid potash salts.

    Above the URF is a clastic unit with significant amounts of, and sometimes beds dominated by, lenticular gypsum and displacive halite. The unit thickens toward the margins of the depression (Figure 2). The widespread presence of diagenetic salts indicates high pore salinities as, or soon after, the saline beds that stack into the clastic unit were deposited. Some of these early diagenetic evaporite textures are spectacular, as seen in the displacive halite recovered in a core from the lower portion of the clastic overburden, some 45 m below the modern pan surface (Figure 3).

    What is clear from the textures preserved in the potash-rich Houston formation and the immediately underlying and overlying halites is that they first formed in a subaqueous-dominated marine-fed hydrology (Figure 4), which evolves up section into more ephemeral saltpan hydrologies of today (see the previous blog). The potash interval encapsulated in the Houston formation has primary mineralogical associations that are derived by evaporation of Pleistocene seawater (kainitite, carnallitite). In contrast the sylvite section in the Houston tends to form when these primary mineralogies are altered diagenetically perhaps soon after deposition but, especially, when hydrothermal waters circulated through uplifted beds of the Houston Formation, as is still occurring in the vicinity of the Dallol Volcanic Mound. Or where the chemical/meteoric interface associated with the encroachment of the bajada sediment pile drove incongruent dissolution of carnallite along the updip edge of the Houston Fm (as we shall discuss in the next blog). 

    References

    Augustithis, S. S., 1980, On the textures and treatment of the sylvinite ore from the Danakili Depression, Salt Plain (Piano del Sale), Tigre, Ethiopia: Chemie der Erde, v. 39, p. 91-95.

    Hardie, L. A., 1990, The roles of rifting and hydrothermal CaCl2 brines in the origin of potash evaporites: an hypothesis: American Journal of Science, v. 290, p. 43-106.

    Holwerda, J. G., and R. W. Hutchinson, 1968, Potash-bearing evaporites in the Danakil area, Ethiopia: Economic Geology, v. 63, p. 124-150.

    Pedley, H. M., J. Neubert, and J. K. Warren, in press, Potash deposits of Africa: African Mineral Deposits, 35TH International Geological Congress (IGC), Capetown (28 August to 4 September 2016).

    Warren, J. K., 2015, Evaporites: A compendium (ISBN 978-3-319-13511-3) Released August 2015: Berlin, Springer, 1600 p. 

    Danakhil Potash, Ethiopia: Is the present geology the key? Part 1 of 4

    John Warren - Sunday, April 19, 2015

    Geology of potash in the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia: Is the present the key?

    The Danakhil region, especially in the Dallol region of Ethiopia, is world renowned for significant accumulations of potash salts (both muriates and sulphates), and is often cited as a modern example of where potash accumulates today. What is not so well known are the depositional and hydrological dichotomies that control levels of bittern salts in the Pleistocene stratigraphy that is the Danakhil fill. Geological evolution of the potash occurrences in the Dallol saltflat and surrounds highlights the limited significance of Holocene models for potash, when compared to the broader depositional and hydrological spectra preserved in ancient (Pre-Quaternary) evaporite deposits (see Warren, 2010, 2015 for a more complete analysis across a variety of evaporite salts).

    Across the next four blogs, I shall discuss the geological character of the Danakhil fill and the controls on potash in the depression via four time-related discussions; A) Current continental fan - saltflat hydrology that typifies present and immediate past deposition in the depression (Danakhil Blog1). B) A time in the latest Pleistocene when there was a marine hydrographic connection exemplified by a healthy coralgal rim facies (probably ≈ 100,000 years ago, and a subsequent drawndown gypsum rim facies. Both units are discussed in this blog, (Danakhil Blog1), and C) a somewhat older Pleistocene period when widespread potash salts were deposited via a marine seepage fed hydrology (Danakhil Blog2). Then, within this depositional frame, we will consider D) the influence of Holocene volcanism and uplift driving remobilisation of the somewhat older potash-rich evaporite source beds into the Holocene hydrology (Danakhil Blog3) and finally how this relates to models of Neogene marine potash deposition (Danakhil Blog4). These observations and interpretations are based in large part on a two-week visit to the Dallol, sponsored by BHP minerals, and focused on the potash geology of the region. 

    Dallol Physiography

    The Danakhil Depression of Ethiopia and Eritrea is an area of intense volcanic and hydrothermal activity, with potash occurrences related to rift magmatism, marine flooding, and deep brine cycling. The region is part of the broader Afar Triple Junction and located in the axial zone of the Afar rift, near the confluence of the East African, Red Sea and Carlsberg rifts (Figure 1a; Holwerda and Hutchison, 1968; Hutchinson and Engels, 1970; Hardie, 1990). The depression defines the northern part of the Afar depression and runs SSE parallel to the Red Sea coast, but lies some 50 to 80 km inland, and is separated from the Red Sea by the Danakil Mountains. The fault-defined Danakil Depression is 185 km long, up to 70 km wide, with a floor that in the deeper parts of the depression is more than 116 meters below sea level. It widens to the south, beginning with a 10 km width in the north and widening up to 70 km in the south (Figure 1a). In the vicinity of Lake Assele, the northern portion of the Danakil is known as the Dallol Depression and has been the focus for potash exploration for more than a century and is in the deepest region of the depression with elevations ranging between 50m to 120m below sealevel (Figure 1b, c). Shallow volcano-tectonic barriers, behind Mersa Fatma, Hawakil Bay and south of the Gulf of Zula, prevent hydrographic (surface) recharge to the depression. Marine seepage is not occurring at the present time, but likely did so at the time the main potash unit was precipitated. Lake Assele (aka Lake Kurum) with a water surface at -115m msl should not be confused with Lake Asal (-155 msl), located 350 km to the southeast of the Danakil. Asal an active marine-fed hydrographically isolated lacustrine drawdown system, which today is depositing a combination of pan halite and subaqueous gypsum in the deepest part of the Asal-Ghubbat al Kharab rift (Figure 1a; Warren, 2015).

    Today the halite-floored elongate saltpan, known as the Dallol saltflat, occupies the deepest part of the northern Danakil Depression, extending over an area some 40 km long and 10 km wide (Figure 1b, c). The pan’s position is asymmetric within the Danakil Depression; it lies near the depression’s western edge, some 5km from the foot of the escarpment to the Balakia Mountains and the Ethiopian Highlands, but some 50 km from the eastern margin of the depression, which is in Eritrea. The Dallol saltpan and adjacent Lake Assele today constitute the deepest continental drainage sump in the Afar depression (Figure 1b, c). The area, located east and northeast of the main modern Dallol saltpan depression, is mostly an extensive gypsum plain (Bannert et al., 1970). As we shall see, the gypsum pavement, and its narrower equivalents on the western basin flank, defines a somewhat topographically higher (still sub-sealevel) less-saline, lacustrine episode in the Dallol depression history fill. To the south of the Dallol salt pan, bedded Pleistocene evaporites may underlie the entire Danakil depression, but younger lava flows of the Aden Volcanic Series in combination with alluvium washed in from the surrounding bajada obscure much of the older Pleistocene sedimentary series in southern part of the depression beyond Lake Assele (Figures 1a).

    Climate

    In terms of daily and monthly temperatures, the Dallol region currently holds the official record for highest average, year-round, monthly temperatures; in winter the daily temperature on the saltflat is consistently above 34°C and in summer every day tops 40°C, with some days topping 50°C (Figure 2; Oliver, 2005). These high temperatures and a lack of rainfall, typically less than 200 mm each year, place the Dallol at the hyperarid end of the world desert spectrum and so it lies at the more arid end of the BWh Köppen climate zone (Kottek et al., 2006; Warren, 2015).


    History of extraction of salt products and their transport (Table 1)

    Using little-changed extraction and transport methods, salt (halite) has been quarried by local Afar tribesmen for hundreds of years. First, using axes, a crust of pan salt is chopped into large slabs (Figure 3a). Then workers fit a set of sticks into grooves made by the axes. Next, working the stick, workers lever slabs of bedded salt, which is cut into rectangular tiles of standard size and weight, called ganfur (about 4kg) or ghelao (about 8kg). Tiles are stacked, tied and prepared for transport out of the depression on the backs of camels and donkeys (Figure 3b). Around 2,000 camels and 1,000 donkeys come to the salt flat every day to transport salt tiles to Berahile, about 75 km away. Previously, salt tiles were carried via camel train to the city of Mekele, some 100 km from the Danakil. Mekele, located in the Ethiopian highlands is known as the hub of Ethiopia’s former “white gold” salt trade and still today is known as the “old” salt caravan city. Today, the salt caravans walk the extracted salt to Berahile, located some 60 km from Mekele. From there, trucks transport the salt to Mekele. Each truck can transport up to 350 camel salt loads. From the Mekele salt market, Dallol salt blocks are transported and sold to all parts of Ethiopia for use mainly as table salt or as an add-on in animal feed. The lifestyle of the miners and the camel trains is likely to change in the next few decades as sealed roads are now under construction that will link Mekele to Dallol.


    Once potash (sylvite and carnallite) was discovered in the Dallol region in 1906, an Italian company by the name of Compagnia Mineraria Coloniale (CMC) established the first mining operation. In 1918 a railway was completed from the port of Mersa Fatma to a termination some 28 km from Dallol (Table 1). Rail construction took place from 1917-1918, using what was then the British and French “military-standard” 600 mm rail-gauge Decauville system. "Decauville" rail construction used ready-made sections of small-gauge track and so the trackway was rapidly assembled; <2 years to complete more than 50 km of track. Once completed, the railway transported extracted potash salt from the "Iron Point" rail terminal near Dallol, via Kululli to the port. Potash production is said to have reached some 50,000 metric tons in the 1920s, extracted from an area centred on the Crescent Deposit, which is located near the foot of uplifted lake beds on the southern flanks of Mt Dallol. However, significant salt production had ceased by the end of the 1920s, as large-scale mines in Germany, the USA, and the USSR began to supply the world market with cheaper product. Unsuccessful attempts to reopen potash production were made in the period 1920-1941. Between 1925-29 some 25,000 tons of sylvite were shipped by rail from the Dallol, with a product that averaged 70% KCl. After World War II, the British administration dismantled the railway and removed all traces of it. In 1951-1953, the Dallol Co. of Asmara sold a few tons of product from the Dallol.


    The potash concession title was transferred to the American “Ralph M. Parsons Company” (Parsons) at the end of the 1950s. Parsons initiated the first systematic exploration for potash in the Danakil depression and drilled more than 250 exploration holes during their 9-year evaluation campaign. Major potash resources were confirmed a few km west of Mount Dallol, in a mineralized zone that was named the “Musley” Deposit. Following on from positive exploration results, they began an engineering study to investigate potential processing and mining methods for the Musley Deposit and subsequently in October 1965 sank a shaft into the orebody. They installed underground mine facilities and established a pilot processing plant on surface, to investigate recovery from the bulk samples collected from the underground workings. They envisaged developing the Musley Deposit as a conventional room-and-pillar operation and to this end developed six underground drifts totalling some 805 m in length. Unconfirmed reports suggest that an influx of water flooded the mine (possibly triggered by a seismic event) and after failed attempts to solve the water problem, the activities Parsons ceased activities in 1968. As of end 2014, some salt block buildings built by the Italian and other companies still partially stand as ruins, along with rusting equipment.

    Based on the previous work conducted by Parsons, a German potash producer, Salzdetfurth AG (SAG), began a new exploration campaign in the Danakil Depression in 1968 and 1969. In addition to their work in the Dallol depression, SAG drilled a number of wells in a concession south of Lake Assale, and conducted a geological mapping campaign as far north as Lake Badda, on the border with Eritrea. SAG’s exploration work away from the known Dallol deposits did not prove fruitful as they drilled only one drill hole that reached the potash level. This drill hole, located approximately 25 km to the southeast of Mount Dallol, intersected a kainitite bed, with no sylvinite intersection. The SAG concession was returned to state authorities of Ethiopia. Subsequent drilling by other explorationists in this region has confirmed the deepening of the kainitite level to the southeast of Dallol and the lack of sylvinite at greater depths.

    Since the dismantling of the railway, there has been no high-volume transport system to carry potash product the Red Sea coast. Currently, the Ethiopian Government is constructing all-weather roads from Dallol to Mekele and Afdera When complete this road system will facilitate transport of future potential potash product from the Dallol to Afdera, from where existing roads provide access to Serdo and from there to the seaport of Tadjoura in Djibouti (Figure 1a). This section requires an addition 30 km of all-weather road to be completed to the coast and will facilitate cost-effective transport of potash product to the large agricultural markets of India and China. The transport distance to the Eritrean coast from Dallol is much shorter, but political considerations mean such a route is not a viable option at the present time.

    EVAPORITE DEPOSITIONAL PATTERNS IN OUTCROP

    Surficial sediment distributions outline classic drawdown facies belts in the Dallol region, with a wadi-fed alluvial fan fringe passing down dip into sandflats (local dune fields), dry mudflats (with springs), saline mudflats and ephemeral to perennial brine pans of Lake Assele (Figure 1b). The fans, especially along the western margin of the depression are indented or locally covered by a mostly younger succession of constant-elevation marine, biochemical and evaporitic sediments fringes or “bathtub rim” facies (Figure 4).

     

    Alluvial Fan fringe (Bajada) 

    Pleistocene alluvial/fluvial beds, exposed by local uplift, deflation and ongoing watertable lowering, outcrop about updip edges to the salt-crusted parts of the northern Danakil, and form low flat-topped plateaus or mesas on the plain. These mesas define the tops of alluvial fans aprons, which are heavily dissected and eroded by occasional storm runoff and rainfall. This fan fringe contains relatively fresh water lenses in a desert setting that is one of the world’s harshest (Kebede, 2012). Most of the depositionally active fans line the western margin of the basin and many of the downdip fan edges occur slightly up dip a still-exposed gypsum pavement (Figure 5a), showing depositional equilibration largely with an earlier higher lake stage, while others, such as the Musley fan, have flowed across cut into the gypsum pavement level and now feed water and sediment directly into the edges of the saltflat that defines the lower parts of the depression (Figure 4). Watercourses of the fans that have dissected earlier wadi (bajada) deposits as well as the earlier lacustrine gypsum and limestone pavements so create excellent windows into the stratigraphy of these units. Fan avulsion is indicated by palaeosol layers exposed by downcutting of younger streams (Figure 5b, c).

     

    The Musley fan characteristics are well documented by current and previous potash explorers in the basin as these permeable gravels and sands store a reliable water source for potential solution mining/ore processing in the Musley area and so has been cored by a number of proposed water wells. Internally, the fan is composed of interfingering layers and lenses of sand, gravel and clay (paleosols), with highly porous intervals in the sand and gravels (Figure 5b, c). Depth to the watertable varies from >2m to 60m, and salinities from 760 ppm to more than 23,400 ppm. The principal source of recharge is flash flooding, originating in Musley Canyon, which drains the Western Escarpment, along with minor inflows from the adjacent uplifted volcanic block and local highly intermittent rains (Figure 1a). Of six potential water wells drilled in the fan by the Ralph M. Parsons Company in the 1960s, four returned water of good quality (<2000 mg/l), while the other two had waters with salinities in excess of 20 g/l. Pumping test data indicate average transmissivity of the water-bearing beds around 870m2/day, with salinities in the fan increasing from west to east, approaching the saltflat.

    Chemical sediments outcropping in the depression

    Overall, surface sediment patterns in the Danakil depression define a depositional framework of brine drawdown, related to basin isolation from an earlier hydrographic (at surface) marine connection to the Red Sea, followed by stepped evaporative drawdown. This is indicated by fringing topographically-distinct belts or rims of now inactive coralgal carbonates and gypsum evaporites (aka “bathtub ring” patterns) that cover earlier Pleistocene and Neogene clastics (Figures 3a, e, Figure 4). These “rims” of marine limestone and subsequent gypsum were followed by today’s drawdown saline-pan halite-dominant hydrology (Figures 4, 7a-c). The current hydrological package of sediments encompassing the current drawdown episode lies atop and postdates the Pleistocene potash-hosting Lower Halite Formation in the depression and is probably equivalent to the uppermost part of the clastic overburden facies, as illustrated in the drilled and cored portions of the depression stratigraphy. As we shall discuss in the next blog, only the uppermost portion of the recovered core stratigraphy has equivalents in current depression hydrology (Figure 6). 


    In earlier work, some authors interpreted the fringing belts, especially the exposed coralgal reef belt, as being possibly of Pliocene or even Miocene age. However, when one looks at the stratiform nature of the outcrop trace of both the reef belt and the gypsum belt, and the carapace nature of its depositional boundaries in the field, it is immediately apparent they must be younger (Figure 5a, c; Figure 7). Both the reefal and gypsum belts track horizontal hydrological intersections with the landscape, in what is an ongoing volcanogenic and tectonically active depression. When the reefal belt image is overlain by a DEM it shows the reef belt is consistently at sea level (Figure 1c). If the outcrops of the reef belt and the gypsum pavement were older than late Pleistocene or Holocene, then ongoing episodes of tectonism and volcanism would have modified the elevations of the two outcrop belts in the landscape, as is seen in Miocene redbed outcrops. These underlying and centripetal Miocene sections clearly show the influence of ongoing tilting and tectonism and hence why the flat-lying tops to the reef and gypsum belts imply a late Pleistocene-Holocene (Figure 5d).

    That is, the topographic distribution of the top of the reef facies, which lies within a metre or two of current sea level, implies that the Danakil depression had a relatively recent connection to the Red Sea. The pristine preservation of aragonitic corals and sand dollars in the adjacent marls suggest the connection was either related to the penultimate interglacial (around 104, 000 years ago) or to an early Holocene transgression into the depression. Bannert et al. (1970) assign a C14 age of 25.4-34.5 ka to this formation. However, we consider this is unlikely as DEM overlay levelling shows the reef rim, wherever it outcrops, lies within a meter of current sealevel. World eustacy clearly shows that sealevel was more than 50-60m below its present level some 25,000-30,000 years ago. A 25-35 ka determination of the reef rim would require the whole basin was subject to a single basinwide wide vertical uplift event that did not fragment or disturb the lateral elevation of the rim.

    The coralgal reef terrace indicates normal marine water were once present in the Dallol depression, while the occurrences of the stratiform gypsum pavement are consistent with a former arid lake hydrology at a somewhat lower elevation than the reef rim (Figures 1c, 5a). Like the reef rim, the gypsum pavement fringe defines a consistent elevation level or surface, most clearly visible along the western margin of the present salt flat. It is the result of gypsum deposition during a period of drawdown associated with brine level stability, subsequent to the isolation of the depression from its former “at-surface” marine connection. During this time gypsum accumulated as a stack of subaqueous aligned gypsum beds, along with a series of gypsiferous tufas and rhizoconcretions in zones about the more marginward spring-fed parts of the gypsiferous lake margin (Figure 7d-f). The evolution from marine waters that deposited the reefs and adjacent echinoid-rich lagoonal marls at a higher level in the depression (the lit zone) into a more saline seepage-fed system, with no ongoing marine surface connection to the Red Sea is indicated by the diagenetic growth of large lenticular (“bird’s-beak”) gypsum crystals within the marine marls and the dominant subqueous bottom-nucleated textures in the gypsum beds. In a similar way, the now-outcropping subaqueous-gypsum drawdown rim deposits, located at higher elevations than current saline pan levels typify other drawdown saline lakes in the Afar region, such as Lake Asal in Djibouti, all such occurrences indicate an earlier, somewhat less saline, hydrological equilibrium level (Warren, 2015).


    Active today is the lowest parts of the Dallol saltflat is an ephemeral saltpan hydrology indicated by bedded salt crusts dominated by megapolygonal crusts made up of aligned-chevron halite stacks separated by mm-cm thick mud layers . This current pan hydrology is associated with even greater drawdown levels compared to the former gypsum-dominant hydrology (Figure 8). Current deposits, made up a series of stacked brine-pan salt sheets,  are still quarried as a renewable resource by the local tribesmen (Figure 3). These modern brine flats accumulate pan halite whenever the Lake Assele brine edge (strandline) is periodically blown back and forth over the modern brineflat. It driven by southerly winds, which are frequent in the annual weather cycle, and can move thin sheets of brine kilometres across the pan in a few hours (Figure 1a, Figure 8). Superimposed on this southerly supply of brine is an occasional land-derived sheetflood event, driven by rare rainstorms and the deposition of silt-mud layers from water sheets sourced from the adjacent wadi belt. This ephemeral brineflat hydrology is stable with respect to the current climate (groundwater inflow ≈ outflow). It means the current brineflat of the northern Danakil low is  accumulating bedded pan salt at an even lower topographic level in the basin than the surrounding gypsum pavement, so implying today’s halite-dominant pan beds form under more arid conditions (less humid, more drawndown) than that of the gypsum pavement.


    This stepped (reef to gypsum to halite) late-Pleistocene-early Holocene hydrology, captured in the modern surficial geology of the Dallol Depression, likely postdates a somewhat wetter (humid) climatic period indicated by the widespread deposition of a clastic overburden unit, atop the Upper Halite Formation (UHF; Figure 6). That is, the modern hydrology in present-day Lake Assale, and the adjacent saline mud flats of the Dallol pan, is not the same hydrology as that which precipitated the massive salt of the Upper Halite Formation (UHF). A potash-free halite unit extensively cored beneath the present clastic-dominated saline pan (to be discussed in the next blog). Texturally and hydrologically the depositional system of stacked salt crusts, which dominates the upper part of the UHF in the cored wells, is similar to today's halite-dominated passage from the salt flat into the subaqueous Lake Assale. However, as we shall see, a wetter moister period, dominated by sheetfloods and higher amounts of clastics, separates the two hydrological events in all the cored wells. Today's outcrop geology of alternating saltpan and clastic beds are a different to marine-fed seepage hydrology formed the Lower Halite Formation (LHF), with its potash bittern cap (Houston Formation). 

    Most importantly there is no evidence of primary potash deposition in the modern lake/ pan hydrology of the Dallol saltflat. It is clear that the world-famous bedded potash (mostly kainitite) units of the Danakhil accumulated in a bittern hydrology that is not present in today's Dallol depositional hydrology (Blog 2). As we shall see, Holocene potash only occurs in the vicinity of the Dallol Volcanic Mound, where uplift has moved older, formerly buried, potash beds into a more active hydrothermal hydrology (Blog 3).

    References

    Bannert, D., J. Brinckmann, K. C. Käding, G. Knetsch, M. KÜrsten, and H. Mayrhofer, 1970, Zur Geologie der Danakil-Senke: Geologische Rundschau, v. 59, p. 409-443.

    Ercosplan, 2011, Resource Report for the Danakhil Potash Deposit, Afar State Ethiopia, comissioned by Allana Potash. Document EGB 11-008.

    Hardie, L. A., 1990, The roles of rifting and hydrothermal CaCl2 brines in the origin of potash evaporites: an hypothesis: American Journal of Science, v. 290, p. 43-106.

    Holwerda, J. G., and R. W. Hutchinson, 1968, Potash-bearing evaporites in the Danakil area, Ethiopia: Economic Geology, v. 63, p. 124-150.

    Hutchinson, R. W., and G. G. Engels, 1970, Tectonic significance of regional geology and evaporite lithofacies in northeastern Ethiopia: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, v. A 267, p. 313-329.

    Kebede, S., 2012, Groundwater in Ethiopia: Features, numbers and opportunities, Springer.

    Kottek, M., J. Grieser, C. Beck, B. Rudolf, and F. Rubel, 2006, World Map of the Köppen-Geiger climate classification updated: Meteorologische Zeitschrift, v. 15, p. 259-263.

    Warren, J. K., 2010, Evaporites through time: Tectonic, climatic and eustatic controls in marine and nonmarine deposits: Earth-Science Reviews, v. 98, p. 217-268.

    Warren, J. K., 2015, Evaporites: A compendium (ISBN 978-3-319-13511-3) Released August 2015: Berlin, Springer, 1600 p.


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    Koppen climate HYC Pb-Zn sulfate knistersalz Lop Nor CO2 Five Island salt dome trend solikamsk 2 sedimentary copper sulphur Magdalen's Road nacholite snake-skin chert DHAB flowing salt cauliflower chert sepiolite hydrothermal potash Stebnik Potash salt trade marine brine Lomagundi Event York (Whitehall) Mine DHAL Catalayud potash ore price Hyperarid well log interpretation extrasalt halokinetic Boulby Mine vanished evaporite gas in salt Mulhouse Basin authigenic silica intrasalt Deep Prairie Evaporite H2S salt suture Ingebright Lake NaSO4 salts lithium battery basinwide evaporite antarcticite saline clay eolian transport sinkhole Ure Terrace Sumo halite-hosted cave Weeks Island salt mine phreatic explosion halophile vadose zone salt ablation breccia endosymbiosis water on Mars source rock hydrothermal karst Calyptogena ponderosa doline Precambrian evaporites High Magadi beds sulfur circum-Atlantic Salt Basins evaporite karst Salar de Atacama black salt Warrawoona Group halite astrakanite salt leakage, dihedral angle, halite, halokinesis, salt flow, halotolerant hydrological indicator Messinian Lop Nur supercontinent organic matter Gamma log MVT deposit Turkmenistan Danakhil Depression, Afar collapse doline water in modern-day Mars phreatomagmatic explosion SOP Realmonte potash MOP gem trona kainitite seawater evolution venice capillary zone Hadley cell: Platform evaporite seal capacity jadarite Stebnyk potash hydrohalite Karabogazgol climate control on salt namakier alkaline lake Atlantis II Deep McArthur River Pb-Zn mass die-back causes of glaciation anthropogenically enhanced salt dissolution mine stability rockburst bischofite cryogenic salt blowout Lamellibrachia luymesi well blowout carbon cycle CaCl2 brine dihedral angle Great Salt Lake hydrogen Dead Sea saltworks gypsum dune zeolite GR log potash ore salt seal stable isotope allo-suture chert mirabilite tachyhydrite dissolution collapse doline evaporite dissolution gassy salt vestimentiferan siboglinids Mega-monsoon bedded potash Thiotrphic symbionts 18O Zaragoza African rift valley lakes perchlorate hectorite epsomite Dead Sea caves lithium brine ancient climate RHOB silicified anhydrite nodules Seepiophila jonesi waste storage in salt cavity Proterozoic methane Kara bogaz gol Red Sea methanotrophic symbionts 18O enrichment recurring slope lines (RSL) brine lake edge Kalush Potash carnallitite brine pan evaporite-hydrocarbon association sulphate salt periphery sodium silicate stevensite oil gusher potash Koeppen Climate Crescent potash Deep seafloor hypersaline anoxic lake Lake Magadi brine evolution MgSO4 depleted Jefferson Island salt mine anomalous salt zones Dallol saltpan geohazard natural geohazard silica solubility gas outburst wireline log interpretation Evaporite-source rock association Dead Sea karst collapse Schoenite anthropogenic potash mummifiction Neoproterozoic Oxygenation Event Patience Lake member Hell Kettle NPHI log meta-evaporite Pangaea Sulphate of potash lazurite Paleoproterozoic Oxygenation Event Neoproterozoic K2O from Gamma Log lunette lapis lazuli deep seafloor hypersaline anoxic basin dark salt Ripon base metal Neutron Log SedEx Lake Peigneur Pilbara salt mine well logs in evaporites methanogenesis MgSO4 enriched Musley potash crocodile skin chert 13C enrichment evaporite-metal association Belle Plain Member Quaternary climate freefight lake magadiite Density log carbon oxygen isotope cross plots salt tectonics North Pole sinjarite salt karst lithium carbonate subsidence basin intersalt lot's wife solar concentrator pans Archean Phaneozoic climate Muriate of potash Belle Isle salt mine Badenian Ethiopia Corocoro copper Clayton Valley playa: auto-suture Mesoproterozoic deep meteoric potash Zabuye Lake CO2: albedo palygorskite evaporite nuclear waste storage Bathymodiolus childressi 13C nitrogen

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